A Big Victory in the Emoluments Clause Litigation Against Trump–But Might It Be Too Big To Last? A Search for Limiting Principles…

As many of our readers may already be aware, there was a significant and encouraging development last week in the litigation challenging President Trump’s ongoing business dealings with foreign and state governments as unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses. For those readers who haven’t already been following this, here’s a quick synopsis. (Readers who have been following this issue can skip to the end of this bullet point list.)

  • Although President Trump claimed he would turn over his business operations to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, in fact President Trump retains substantial interests in those businesses. Several of those businesses, particularly his hotels (and among those hotels, especially his DC hotel, located at a property leased from the federal government) do substantial amounts of business with representatives of foreign governments, as well as with state governments. Many people have argued that accepting foreign government or state government patronage at Trump hotels violates the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses, respectively. The Foreign Emoluments Clause states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] shall, without the consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign State.” In other words, no officer of the U.S. federal government can accept an “emolument” (whatever that is – more on this question in a moment) from a foreign government. The Domestic Emoluments Clause states that the President “shall not receive [during his term of office] any other Emolument [besides his official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” In other words, the federal government can’t provide any “emolument” to the President other than his official salary, nor can any state government provide any emolument to the President.
  • So, the argument goes, if a foreign government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel, which increases the Trump Organization’s profits and hence President Trump’s personal wealth, President Trump has received an “emolument” from a foreign state. Similarly, if a state government pays for rooms at a Trump hotel (or purchases other goods or services from a Trump business), the President is receiving an emolument from a state government. An additional violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause may have occurred when the General Services Administration (GSA) (the federal government agency which is, in essence, the landlord for the Trump DC hotel) concluded that the Trump Organization could retain its lease even after Trump’s inauguration, despite the fact that the express terms of the lease appear to preclude this. The argument goes that in allowing the Trump Organization to keep its lease on the property, a federal government agency (in this case the GSA) had granted an “emolument” to the President, in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.
  • Several separate lawsuits alleged these constitutional violations. When they were filed, many people (including me) expected the suits to be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, in particular though not exclusively the inability of the plaintiffs in these cases to show that they were personally and directly harmed by the alleged constitutional violations. And that was indeed what happened to the first case, filed by a civil society nonprofit in New York. But in a separate lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the DC government and the state of Maryland, the judge last April determined that court had jurisdiction over at least some of the plaintiff’s claims (including the claims described above).
  • The President’s lawyers then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that even if everything the plaintiffs alleged were true (a stipulation the President reserves the right to deny later), there’s no constitutional violation, because neither the profit from a business transaction nor a favorable regulatory decision would count as an “emolument.” Rather, on the President’s view, an “emolument” is only a payment made as compensation for official services.
  • Last week, the District Court issued an order denying the President’s motion to dismiss, rejecting the President’s narrow interpretation of “emolument” and instead endorsing a sweeping definition in which an emolument, for purposes of the relevant constitutional clauses, includes anything of value.

That ruling, as Joe Biden might say, is a big f’ing deal. It’s not the end of the case—far from it—but it’s a huge win for the plaintiffs. Among other things, it means there will now be more fact-finding, including discovery, and probably in a few months we’ll have motions for summary judgment and another judicial order in response, which will likely both keep the issue in the news and possibly bring to light even more damaging information about the President’s business dealings. (The President’s lawyers may try to get an appeals court to consider the jurisdictional issue before this process moves forward by asking for what’s called an interlocutory appeal, but by friends who are experts in civil procedure tell me that such a motion is extremely unlikely to succeed, or at least it would be in an ordinary case.)  So, speaking as someone who was initially skeptical of this litigation—who not only thought it was unlikely to succeed but who worried that it could backfire—I’m delighted to confess error. (I suppose we could still debate whether this was a smart gamble at the time, but it does seem that the gamble is paying off, and who am I to argue with success?)

That doesn’t mean that these suits will ultimately succeed. Even if the plaintiffs prevail in the District Court, there will be an appeal, and I think the odds of the plaintiffs prevailing in the Court of Appeals are low. And even if they do win, the Supreme Court is almost certain to hear the case, and I predict that the Court would find a way to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds. (That said, if for some reason the Senate doesn’t confirm Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and in the November 2018 elections the Democrats take the Senate and vow to block any Trump nominee to fill the open seat, then it’s possible that the Supreme Court could deadlock 4-4, leaving any lower court decision in place.)

Now, in addition to the jurisdictional question, one of the issues on appeal will concern the breadth of the District Court’s definition of “emolument.” A lot of the arguments on this point concern matters of text and history. (How did 18th– century dictionaries define “emolument”? What do we learn from debates about the Emoluments Clauses at the Constitutional Convention and ratifying debates? What did early practice look like?) Those arguments are important, but I’m not going to explore them here. There is, however, a separate question of what definition of “emolument” would best serve the purposes of the Emoluments Clauses, which is closely related (if not necessarily identical) to the question of which definition would be the most sensible. I’m very sympathetic to the plaintiff and the District Court’s arguments that the main purpose of the Emoluments Clauses is to serve as broad prophylactic anticorruption measure, one that targets not only quid pro quo deals, but more broadly seeks to eliminate the possibility of governments currying favor with US officials by conferring benefits on them. And I agree that such benefits can take a wide variety of forms. Nonetheless, I do think that the breadth of the definition of “emolument”—as literally anything of value, or as any “profit, gain, or advantage”—might create some problems, and it’s important to think about how the potentially sweeping implications of this definition might be cabined.

I say this not because I’m terribly sympathetic to President Trump’s arguments that he’s not in violation of the Emoluments Clauses. Indeed, based on what I know thus far, I’m fairly confident that President Trump is violating the Emoluments Clauses, and should lose this case on the merits (though the jurisdictional arguments are a closer question). Rather, it’s important to think about appropriate limiting principles for two reasons. First, the likelihood of prevailing on appeal is higher if the plaintiffs and their allies can offer plausible rebuttals to the parade-of-horribles the President’s lawyers will argue follows from defining an emolument as “anything of value.” Second, whatever the appeals court (or perhaps the Supreme Court) says on this issue might have consequences for other cases—with other defendants and different sorts of conduct. So, in the remainder of this post I will first sketch out why the broadest version of the “emolument means literally anything of value” argument might create difficulties, and then consider a series of possible responses to those (alleged) problems. Continue reading

An Encouraging, Albeit Limited, Development in the Emoluments Clause Litigation Against Donald Trump

Sometimes it feels great to have been wrong. Last week, a United States District Judge ruled that a lawsuit brought by the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland against Donald Trump for alleged violations of the Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses could go forward (at least for now). More specifically, the judge rejected President Trump’s argument that the plaintiffs lacked “standing,” as well as various related but distinct challenges to the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case.

When the first Emoluments Clause suits were filed against Trump (three have been brought so far, in different courts by different plaintiffs), I was one of many commentators who predicted that the cases would be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. That prediction seemed borne out when the first of these cases, brought by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds last December. While some of the legal reasoning of that decision was questionable, I’d assumed that other courts would follow suit, on the logic that most judges would want to avoid having to decide these cases on the merits, and the jurisdictional doctrines are sufficiently malleable that a competent judge would be able to write a defensible opinion dismissing the cases for want of jurisdiction. (Initially I also fretted that a jurisdictional dismissal could be exploited by Trump and his allies to imply that the courts had rejected the merits of the argument that Trump’s mixture of his business affairs and his public office crosses a constitutional line, but on further reflection I now tend to think no development in these cases short of a Supreme Court ruling on the merits—and possibly not even that—would have a measurable impact on public opinion.) So it came as a welcome surprise that the ruling last week held that the Emoluments Clause suit can proceed.

There’s already been a fair bit of coverage of the ruling (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), and I’m not sure if I have that much to add, but since I’ve been commenting fairly regularly on developments in the Emoluments Clause cases, I’ll make a few additional observations: Continue reading

The Dismissal of the CREW v. Trump Emoluments Lawsuit: Some Quick Reactions

As those who follow the debates swirling around President Trump’s extensive conflicts-of-interests are likely aware, last month a United States District Court dismissed, on jurisdictional grounds, a lawsuit asserting that President Trump’s business interests put him in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s foreign and domestic Emoluments Clauses. The opinion came down over a month ago, but I was traveling at the time and didn’t have a chance to read it until recently. There was plenty of informed commentary in the immediate wake of the decision (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), and I recognize that further discussion may not be that useful. But since I had posted several times about the case last year, I thought it might be worth saying a few words about what we might take away from the opinion and its impact.

For those whose memory of the details of the case is a bit fuzzy, a brief recap: The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits any official of the U.S. government from accepting any “present [or] emolument” from a foreign government, while the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits the U.S. President from receiving any “emolument” from the U.S. government or any state government during his or her term of office. The Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit asserting that President Trump was in violation of both clauses. The complaint alleged that several of Trump’s businesses—from which he did not divest—solicited and received the patronage of foreign governments, in contravention of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, and that Trump companies had received business and/or benefits from both federal and state government entities, thereby offending the Domestic Emoluments Clause. The CREW suit, which was later joined by several co-plaintiffs who compete economically with Trump hotels and restaurants, asked the court to enjoin President Trump from continued or future violations of the Emoluments Clauses, and to order him to release his financial records in order to be sure that no such violations took place.

I’m sympathetic to CREW’s arguments on the merits (though I recognize that there are important arguments on the other side, which I admit I haven’t fully worked through – see here and here). But I feared that the lawsuit was likely to be dismissed—not on the merits, but on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. Indeed, I thought such a dismissal was almost certain. I also fretted that CREW’s decision to bring the case might be a serious strategic error: My worry was that the near-inevitable dismissal of the suit on jurisdictional grounds would give most of the public the misleading impression that the underlying claims of improper behavior were meritless, and that pro-Trump media outlets would foster that misimpression, with the net result that concern about Trump’s conflicts of interest would dissipate rather than intensify. My concerns somewhat but not fully abated when the additional plaintiffs (competing restaurants, hotels, and their employees) joined the suit. I thought that these additional plaintiffs, unlike CREW itself, were more likely to have “standing” (one of the requirements for the court to have jurisdiction), but that other jurisdictional problems might still stop the court from reaching and deciding the question whether President Trump is in violation of the Constitution.

So, now that the decision is out, what should we think of it, and what can we learn from it? My own reaction is, perhaps, a bit paradoxical: After reading the opinion and the subsequent commentary and news coverage, I’m even more convinced than I was before that this lawsuit and others like it will be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I’m less concerned that pursuing these suits is a strategic mistake (though there are still questions about whether it’s a worthwhile use of scarce advocacy resources, or of the court system). Continue reading

When, If Ever, Does a Favorable Legal or Regulatory Decision Count as an “Emolument”?

Last week, I posted about the amended complaint that the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed in its lawsuit against President Trump for alleged unconstitutional acceptance of “emoluments” from various sources. My post last week, like much of the immediate commentary on the amended complaint, focused on the new plaintiffs who had joined the suit, and the extent to which their addition mitigated concerns about whether the court would have jurisdiction to hear the case. But the amended complaint was notable for other reasons. In particular, it fleshed out more details about President Trump’s alleged violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, and also added a new set of allegations focused on separate violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.

What was most striking to me about the allegations detailed in the amended complaint is that in several cases, the alleged “emolument” is not a monetary payment or a market transaction, but rather a legal or regulatory decision by a government (U.S. or foreign) that favors businesses owned by President Trump. Consider the following examples:

  • Donald Trump had long sought—and had long been denied—Chinese trademark protection for his “Trump” brand in China. Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump made statements suggesting that he might reconsider the U.S. commitment not to recognize the government of Taiwan (the so-called “One China” policy). On February 9, President Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Following the meeting, President Trump reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the One China policy. Five days later, China granted the Trump Organization its trademarks. According to CREW, the decision to grant the trademarks was an emolument, from the government of China to President Trump.
  • The Trump Organization has several ongoing real estate development projects in Indonesia, which require permits from the government. According to the CREW complaint, if and when the government of Indonesia grants these permits, this will constitute an emolument from the government of Indonesia to President Trump.
  • Prior to the election, a company owned by President Trump signed a lease with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to open what is now the Trump International Hotel at a property owned by the U.S. government. The lease agreement stated that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” Prior to President Trump’s inauguration, a GSA official indicated that the GSA thought that Trump would be in violation of the lease unless he fully divests from the hotel. Shortly after the inauguration, President Trump appointed a new GSA Administrator. On March 23, the GSA issued a letter taking the position that President Trump is not in violation of the lease, principally because President Trump would not receive any earnings from the hotel until he leaves office. Many ethics experts derided the GSA’s letter as unpersuasive. The CREW amended complaint goes further, arguing that the GSA’s letter is itself an “emolument” from the U.S. government to President Trump.
  • Prior to the election, the Trump company that owns the D.C. hotel applied for a “Historical Rehabilitation Tax Credit,” which, if approved, could be worth up to $32 million. The application has cleared the first two phases of the three-stage approval process—the first step before the election, the second step after the election (but before inauguration). The National Park Service must provide the third and final approval. If the Service were to grant that approval, according to the CREW complaint, this would be an unconstitutional domestic emolument to the President.

All of these alleged “emoluments” are regulatory or legal decisions by government agencies. Can such decisions count as emoluments? When or under what conditions?

These turn out to be hard legal questions, and to the best of my knowledge there’s very little existing case law or scholarly commentary. I’ll throw out some preliminary thoughts here, but this issue likely deserves more sustained and careful analysis from genuine experts (which I am not). Continue reading

CREW’s New and Improved Legal Complaint Against Trump

Can anything be done about the serious corruption risks posed by Donald Trump’s dual role as President of the United States and patriarch of a vast business empire? Do any of these apparent conflicts of interest break the law? If so, is it reasonable to hope that the courts will step in?

As readers of this blog are likely aware, a group of activists, lawyers, and legal scholars have asserted that the answers to the above questions are Yes, Yes, and Yes. The fact that President Trump’s companies do business with foreign governments, the argument goes, means that the President is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits any person “holding any office of profit or trust under [the United States]” from accepting, without congressional consent, “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Shortly after the inauguration, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit advocacy group, filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that President Trump was in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause and a court order enjoining the President from further violations of that clause.

Before CREW filed its suit, I was skeptical about the prospects of a judicial remedy for this alleged Emoluments Clause violation—not because I didn’t think that President Trump was in violation of the clause (quite the opposite), but because I didn’t think it was realistic to expect that a court would be willing to order the sitting President to rearrange his financial affairs (or hold him in contempt if he didn’t). My prediction was that the court would find a way to dismiss the suit on jurisdictional grounds, or deem it a non-justiciable “political question.” And my skepticism only deepened after CREW filed its original complaint. Like many other legal analysts, I thought that CREW’s claimed basis for “standing” (which requires a direct, concrete, non-ideological injury to the plaintiff) was flimsy and would likely be rejected, and I worried that the whole enterprise would prove counterproductive, because a dismissal on jurisdictional grounds would be widely misinterpreted as a judicial rejection of the substantive claim that Donald Trump is violating the Constitution.

Two days ago, CREW filed an amended complaint, which has caused me to rethink (though not entirely abandon) my earlier skepticism. The new complaint includes a number of changes, but by far the two most important are these:

  1. The amended complaint adds two new plaintiffs to the suit—an association of restaurants and a Washington, D.C. event planner—whose claims to have standing are much stronger than CREW’s.
  2. The amended complaint also adds new substantive allegations that President Trump is not only violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause, but is also violating a separate provision of the Constitution, the so-called “Domestic Emoluments Clause,” which states that the President shall receive a fixed salary, which cannot be changed during his term, and that the President “shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any [state].”

In a future post I may have something to say about the Domestic Emoluments Clause issue, but for now I want to focus on how much difference the addition of the two new plaintiffs makes to the likelihood that the lawsuit will survive a motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds. My initial take is that it makes a big difference—the case for standing, under current doctrine, is now much stronger than it was before—but some problems still remain. Continue reading