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

Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

Continue reading

Is Going After Trump’s Businesses Under State Law Such a Good Idea?–Some Criticisms To Consider

As regular readers of this blog are aware, although I share the concern that the Trump family’s extensive private business interests pose significant corruption risks, I’m skeptical that existing federal law supplies the tools needed to attack this problem. Some of the most important federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the President, and some of the creative attempts to sue the President in federal court for alleged violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause face what I fear are insurmountable legal obstacles. Several commentators have proposed reforms to federal law that would deal with the presidential conflict-of-interest problems more effectively, and some Members of Congress have introduced such legislation. But as a practical matter, given Republican control of Congress, these proposals—whatever their symbolic value—are not going anywhere.

If federal law isn’t going to help, might state law be the answer? Shortly after Donald Trump tweeted critical comments about Nordstrom’s department store’s decision to drop his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, ethics expert Norm Eisen suggested that this tweet might be a violation of California’s unfair competition law (UCL), which prohibits “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.” Around the same time, Fordham Law Professor Jed Shugerman wrote a lengthy blog post, which got quite a bit of well-deserved attention, suggesting that state corporate law tools could be used to go after alleged violations of the Emoluments Clause by Trump’s businesses. Picking up on some of these suggestions, I argued in previous posts that the California UCL, or others with similarly broad phrasing, might be a viable basis for an Emoluments Clause suit, and further that states could amend their UCLs, consumer protection laws, business organization laws, and anticorruption laws in ways that would make it harder for businesses owned or controlled by the President of the United States (or his immediate family) to leverage political power for private commercial gain in ways that would adversely affect the interests of the states’ citizens.

The idea that state (or local) laws might be used in this way is not purely hypothetical or speculative. A couple of lawsuits are already invoking UCLs as a basis for going after allegedly unlawful overlap between the Trump family’s business interests and their political power. First, a Washington, D.C. restaurant brought a private suit alleging that Trump’s ownership interest in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which occupies a building leased from the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), violates the terms of the lease, and that this in turn gives rise to a violation of D.C.’s UCL. (That suit, however, was dealt a major blow when the GSA ruled—implausibly—that Trump is not in violation of the lease.) Second, a San Francisco clothing retailer has sued Ivanka Trump under California’s UCL, alleging that various actions by Donald and Ivanka Trump, and others, to promote Ivanka’s brand have unlawfully hurt competitors such as the plaintiff. And in what many took as an encouraging sign, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently hired former Assistant United States Attorney Howard Master, who handled public corruption prosecutions under recently-fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and news reports indicate that Mr. Schneiderman is looking into the possibility that Trump’s alleged Emoluments Clause violations also put him in violation of state law.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this line of attack, particularly if state attorneys general and state legislators get involved, and I’m currently working on developing some more concrete proposals along these lines. (As the modern cliché goes, “Watch this space.”) At the same time, though, I’ve talked to a number of smart, thoughtful people who are skeptical that pushing for state-level responses—particularly by aggressive state attorneys general—is such a good idea. While these criticisms haven’t yet convinced me to change my mind, they’re important enough that those of us attracted to the state law approach ought to take them seriously and reflect carefully before we charge ahead. So, let me try to summarize what I take as the three most important arguments against trying to use state law tools to make it more difficult for the Trump family to profit from the presidency: Continue reading

State-Level Responses to Trump’s Corrupt Mix of Business and Politics: Some Preliminary Proposals

In my last post, I suggested that legal responses to concerns about corruption in the Trump Administration—in particular, concerns about Trump’s use of the presidency to enrich his family—might be more successful at the state level than at the federal level, and might be more viable if they do not attempt to target Trump directly, but rather deploy state law tools to limit the Trump family’s ability to leverage Trump’s position for commercial gain. My last post noted two proposals for lines of legal attack that could be initiated by state attorneys general (or possibly by private parties) under existing bodies of state law: state unfair competition laws (some of which are framed very broadly) and state corporate laws (which give states considerable power to regulate corporations, and possibly limited liability companies (LLCs), operating pursuant to state charters).

These proposals are attractive because they do not require any changes in existing laws. At the same time, and for that same reason, the laws in question are not necessarily well-tailored to the specific and unprecedented corruption/conflict-of-interest problems at issue in the Trump Administration. For that reason, it might be worth exploring potential changes to state law that would give state enforcement agencies, and possibly private litigants, more effective tools to rein in some of the most egregious sorts of potential conflicts, and thereby to enforce a more rigid separation between the Trump Administration and the Trump family’s business interests. Even though Republicans control the large majority of state governments, there are several states where Democrats and sympathetic Republicans might well have enough clout to pass such legislation—including, perhaps most importantly, California, New York, and Delaware. (Many other states have popular ballot initiative processes that might enable the passage of legislation even over the objections of Republican-controlled state legislatures.)

What might such state-level legislative reforms look like? This is a topic I hope to explore in a series of future posts, but here let me throw out a few relatively simple preliminary ideas: Continue reading

State-Level Responses to Trump’s Business Conflicts: A More Promising Line of Attack?

It is genuinely alarming how much Donald Trump seems intent—in true kleptocratic/crony capitalist style—on using his position as President to advance the commercial and financial interests of himself, his immediate family members, and their various business enterprises. As I’ve written before, this approach to governance (if you can call it that) has plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world, but it’s a new experience for Americans. One hopes the U.S. electorate will come to its senses and throw the bum out in four years, but that’s a long way away. In the meantime, the hope that the President might be impeached over his possibly unconstitutional conflicts of interest seems profoundly unrealistic: Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and most Republicans actually seem quite happy to accommodate themselves to a Trump Administration if it enables them to advance their policy goals. Even those Republicans who find Trump’s conduct inexcusable are far more worried about a primary challenge supported by Trump’s rabid supporters than they are about the general electorate. For the same reason, proposals for new federal legislation that would strengthen ethical restraints on the President, whatever their symbolic value, are likely dead-on-arrival as practical proposals. Perhaps understandably, some anticorruption advocates have placed their hopes in the federal courts, most notably through lawsuits alleging that the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, though for reasons I have explained in previous posts (see here and here), I’m doubtful that such lawsuits have much chance of success.

This is all very depressing, and I acknowledge that in the short term there’s relatively little that can be done; the ultimate remedy will have to be through the electoral process. Nonetheless, I do think that the ideas of enacting new legislation and pursuing certain forms of litigation do hold some promise as means to impose significant constraints on Trumpian corruption. The problem with the proposals I noted above is that they involve proposed responses at the federal level, and for the most part they target the President himself. There’s an alternative, though: Litigation and legislation at the state level, targeting Trump’s business interests and their potential commercial partners. Though hardly a complete solution, there may be a number of things to do at the state level to constrain at least some of the abuses associated with politically-connected business interests that seek to leverage those political connections for commercial advantage, or to facilitate corrupt or otherwise unlawful conduct. To illustrate, let me note a couple of ideas that other experts have floated about how aggressive state attorneys general (or perhaps private litigants) might make use of existing state laws to target Trumpian corruption: Continue reading

CREW’s Long-Shot Emoluments Clause Lawsuit Against Trump: Calculated Risk or Reckless Gamble?

After the events of the last ten days, worrying about the potential conflicts of interest created by the Trump organization’s business dealings with foreign governments seems almost quaint. It appears that under the Trump Administration, constitutional crises don’t get resolved, they just get overshadowed by bigger constitutional crises; such are the strange times in which we live. But I did want to return to the topic I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, concerning the pending lawsuit brought by the Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that the Trump Organization’s business relationships with foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause. In my post a couple of weeks ago, I predicted that U.S. courts are likely to toss the suit out on jurisdictional grounds, without reaching the merits of the claim. That assessment appears to be shared by the overwhelming majority of legal experts who have weighed in (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), though the consensus is not quite universal.

Several people have suggested to me that even if the suit has little chance of success, it was good that CREW filed it. They’ve offered two arguments for this assessment: First, even if there’s only a very small chance of success, the costs of bringing the suit are relatively low, and the benefits if the suit does end up succeeding are enormous—so what’s the harm in trying? Second, the mere act of filing the suit, even if it’s ultimately dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, will generate attention to the underlying constitutional and ethical issues, and help both educate and mobilize the citizenry. My colleague Larry Tribe, who is one of the parties who filed the CREW brief, laid out this position clearly and succinctly in an interview shortly after the brief was filed:

Litigation can help bring important principles to light… It helps me teach my students, and it performs an educational function vis-à-vis the public. Of course, I don’t take on causes that I feel confident I will lose purely for educational purposes. But win or lose, we’re going to help educate the public on something that’s very important.

Much as I wish those arguments were true, and much as I wish the CREW lawsuit had some chance of succeeding, I respectfully and reluctantly disagree. I hope that events will prove me wrong, but at the moment I fear that CREW’s decision to file this lawsuit was not only a long shot, but was a serious tactical blunder that will probably hurt the cause overall. Continue reading