Until about a week ago, chances are you’d never heard of the Emoluments Clause. Don’t feel bad about that; pretty much nobody else had ever heard of it either, because since it was written into the Constitution it’s never been used or tested by the Supreme Court. It’s an archaic little piece of law, a relic from the days of expensive gifts between kings and emperors — or it was, anyway. Now President Trump is being accused of breaching it. Has our chief executive really fallen foul of a law written to prevent Ben Franklin from being bribed with jeweled snuff boxes?
- Although the Emoluments Clause only became big news recently, it’s actually the key element in a lawsuit that’s been running since January. Back then a Liberal pressure group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed suit against the president to stop companies he owns from taking payments from foreign governments.
- The group argues that these payments are illegal under the Emoluments Clause, formally known as the Title of Nobility Clause — it’s Clause 8 of Section 9, Article I of the United States Constitution.
- Confused by the name? It was mostly written to prevent a British-style aristocracy being introduced in the US. In full, it reads
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
- Obviously nobody’s worried that the president is going to have himself installed as the 1st Duke of New York. The basis for the lawsuit is the second sub-clause, prohibiting anyone in public office from accepting any “present or emolument.”
- What’s being disputed is whether or not businesses owned by President Trump are allowed to provide services to foreign governments in exchange for payment. That rules out “any present” right away. Paying to rent office space isn’t a present.
- The whole argument comes down to the meaning of “emolument” and whether or not it applies for payments to a business.
- Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an emolument as “the returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites.”
- Payments to businesses owned (but not run) by President Trump aren’t a return arising from his office as president, and it’s that office that’s covered by the clause. He also isn’t an employee of his own businesses.
- The whole purpose of the clause is to prevent foreign powers from paying the president in exchange for political favors; that’s why it applies to the office of president. The clause doesn’t cover the office of the owner of the Trump Organization, so the clause isn’t being violated.
What’s your opinion? Do you think holding the G-7 summit at a Trump facility is a violation of the Emoluments Clause? Let us know in the comments!
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