Trump’s Attempted Violation of the Emoluments Clause, and the Inadequacy of the “Services at Cost” Rationale

In a press briefing on October 17, 2019, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced that the United States would host the 46th G-7 summit at the Trump National Doral Miami, a golf resort in Doral Florida owned by the Trump Organization. The announcement provoked widespread concern (see here and here) that this choice would violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which bars any person “holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from “accepting any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign state,” as well as the Domestic Emoluments Clause, which bars the President from receiving any emolument, other than his salary, from the United States or any of the individual states. Following two days of complaints—not only from the ethics watchdogs and the President’s Democratic opponents, but also from some of his Republican allies—the White House abandoned the plan. So, the situation appears to have resolved itself. Nonetheless, the particular argument that Mulvaney advanced to defend against the anticipated Emoluments Clause complaints is worth considering—and debunking—lest this argument arise again in another context.

To be clear, the White House’s attempt to host the G-7 at a Trump Organization venue appears to be part of the same pattern of self-dealing that has already prompted multiple lawsuits against Trump for alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses. As Mulvaney said on Fox News this past Sunday, “[President Trump] still considers himself to be in the hospitality business, and he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world and he wanted to put on the absolute best show.” Although the proposal to host the G-7 summit at the Doral resort was dropped, Mulvaney’s admission is worrying because there are reasons to suspect Trump chose the Doral property to benefit himself financially. (Consider the fact that in 2004, when the United States hosted the summit on Sea Island the organizers served 45,000 meals and paid the resort owners $3 million to reserve the entire property for 10 days.)

When Mulvaney detailed the White House’s decision-making process for the G-7 venue on October 17, he claimed the administration used neutral criteria when it made this choice (which is a bit hard to swallow given that Mulvaney stated the President suggested Doral), and that Doral was actually the best location (an assertion that is hard to assess without knowing the other venues the White House was considering). Furthermore, Mulvaney also argued that there was no Emoluments Clause violation because Doral would host the event “at cost”—that is, that Doral would only charge the government for the cost of the goods and services provided, and would not make a profit. On its face, this sounds plausible. After all, if Doral—and hence the Trump Organization—does not earn any profits on the G-7 meeting, but merely breaks even, then how can Trump have received an “emolument” from the U.S. government? If anything, the Trump Organization would have provided the U.S. government with a venue and associated amenities at a discounted rate.

Despite its superficial plausibility, there are three flaws with the argument that running the event “at cost” would eliminate any Emoluments Clause problem:

Continue reading

If You Don’t Think Trump’s Financial Conflicts of Interest Matter, Consider the Kurds

Yesterday I posted a note regarding the update of this blog’s project on tracking the various ways in which President Trump and his family may be attempting to use the presidency for private financial gain, how the associated conflicts of interest might influence or distort U.S. policy. In light of recent events, I thought that perhaps it might be appropriate to highlight, and elaborate upon, a few items on that list that may be cause of particular concern:

  • President Trump has extensive business interests in Turkey, including a Trump Tower in Istanbul. This is not a new observation; the potential conflict of interest that this might create has been extensively documented (see here, here, and here), though in light of recent events these business connections have received renewed and intensified scrutiny (see, for example, here, here, and here). Indeed, then-candidate Trump acknowledged back in December 2015 that, “I have a little conflict of interest [in Turkey], because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” Indeed, the Trump Towers Istanbul, which the Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding developed, pays licensing fees to the Trump Organization. The Erdogan government can, and previously has, imposed substantial costs on Dogan Holding, and there are credible reports that the Erdogan Administration believes that this ability to put “pressure on Trump’s business partner [in Turkey]” gives the Turkish government the ability “to essentially blackmail the president.” Let that sink in for a moment.
  • In addition, entities close to the Turkish government have gotten in the habit of spending heavily at Trump properties in the U.S. Most notably, the American Turkish Council and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council have held multiple events at the Trump Hotel in D.C. (see here and here), attended by senior administration officials, with these events estimated to pay the Trump Organization well over $100,000 per event. (It’s also worth noting here that the Turkey-U.S. Business Council is headed by the founder of the consulting company that paid former national security advisor Michael Flynn $530,000 for lobbying work.)

It’s impossible to prove whether any of this directly affected President Trump’s foreign policy decisions regarding Turkish interests. But as Turkish forces continue to bombard the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria—an assault against loyal U.S. allies that was only possible because President Trump acquiesced in President Erdogan’s request/demand that U.S. forces clear out and make the attack possible—it’s hard not to wonder whether crucial U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS have been betrayed by the American Commander-in-Chief so that he can protect his financial interests.

This makes the stakes of the corruption concerns related to this presidency, including those implicated in the Emoluments Clause lawsuits brought against the administration, seem all the more pressing. The strategic and tactical wisdom of those suits, and their legal viability, is a complicated question on which my own views have evolved over time (see here, here, and here). But to characterize the issues raised by those suits as a minor distraction, as former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse did back at the start of the Trump presidency, is a hot take that hasn’t aged well. Here’s what Greenhouse had to say in that January 2017 Council on Foreign Relations roundtable discussion:

I think [the Emoluments Clause] lawsuit is a distraction…. I mean, it seems to me, what we need—we, as concerned citizens—need to focus on are the policy outcomes … emanating from this White House and not, you know, who’s paying the rack rate at the Trump hotel. I mean, that just doesn’t do it for me. (Laughter.) Maybe I’m missing something, but, you know, I think we need to focus on what really matters here.

Note to Ms. Greenhouse: Corruption and conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government “really matters.” Such corruption is often deeply connected to policy outcomes. I’m not sure anyone who follows these issues closely, and who cares about things like our national security policy and our treatment of vital and loyal allies, is laughing much about this now.

Reflections on the Recent Dismissal of One of the Emoluments Clause Suits Against Donald Trump

One of the issues we’ve been following (on and off) over the last couple of years concerns the lawsuits (three in total) that various plaintiffs have brought against President Trump for alleged violation of the U.S. Constitutions “Emoluments Clauses” (see here, here, here, here, and here). In brief, Article I, Section 9 prohibits officers of the United States from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office or Title, of any kind whatever, from any … foreign state” unless Congress consents, while Article II, Section 1 prohibits the President specifically from receiving (during his or her term in office) “any other Emolument [other than the President’s official salary] from the United States, or any of them.” Critics of President Trump have argued that, because President Trump has not fully divested himself from his various businesses, and foreign governments have purchased goods and services from those businesses (or granted them other advantages, such as regulatory approvals or tax breaks), President Trump is in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause. Similar sorts of transactions between state governments and Trump-owned businesses give rise to alleged violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause. And these various lawsuits have sought a judicial remedy for these alleged violations—presumably an injunction requiring either divestment, or else a transfer of any proceeds or profits from prohibited transactions to the U.S. Treasury or some third party (though the plaintiffs in these suits have been a bit vague on exactly what sort of relief they’re seeking).

A potential hurdle for these suits, though, is whether these plaintiffs are allowed to bring them in the first place—a question independent of, and prior to, the merits of their claims. Under U.S. law, a plaintiff bringing a challenge in federal court must have “standing” to bring the claim, a requirement that has been interpreted (pursuant to an aggressive extrapolation from Article III of the Constitution) to require the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant’s unlawful conduct causes the plaintiff a direct, concrete injury that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that could be remedied by a court order. In addition to this standing requirement, the plaintiffs must also show that they have a valid “cause of action”—in other words (and simplifying the legal complexities a bit) they must show that the legal provision under which they’re suing (here the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses) allow plaintiffs like them to sue to enforce those legal requirements. This in turn typically requires the plaintiffs to show that they have at least a colorable argument that their interests fall within the “zone of interests” protected by the law in question. Even some people (me included) who were sympathetic to the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims worried that, under existing doctrine, the plaintiffs in these cases might lose on standing and/or cause-of-action grounds, especially because federal courts might be anxious to make these cases go away without having to reach the merits.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals dealt a serious blow to one of these Emoluments Clause cases, ruling that the plaintiffs (Washington D.C. and the state of Maryland) lacked standing to bring the case. In doing so, the appeals court reversed—and chastised—a district court judge who had concluded the plaintiffs had standing, and who later rejected the defendant’s other arguments for dismissing the suit before discovery could proceed. It’s taken me a while to read the opinion carefully, but now that I have, I figured it might make sense to offer some quick reactions. (The delay means that this can’t count as a “hot take.” Perhaps we can call it a “lukewarm take”?)

My main reactions—what the kids today would call the “TL;DR” version—are as follows: (1) The appeals court’s standing ruling is badly flawed as a matter of law. (2) That doesn’t mean the suit should have been allowed to proceed, because there are other preliminary barriers that might have been harder to overcome. (3) Despite the serious legal flaws in the Court of Appeals’ ruling, I think it significantly reduces the odds that these cases might proceed to discovery and trial, notwithstanding the fact that the litigation isn’t technically over. (4) The political consequences of the dismissal, though not great, are likely not as significant as people like me had worried, but nonetheless this case is a troubling and unnecessary abdication of a potentially important judicial check on (unconstitutionally) corrupt behavior. Let me elaborate each of these points: Continue reading

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