WASHINGTON – President-elect Donald J. Trump, who campaigned by Twitter, is having trouble parting with his money, and his problem can’t be solved in 140 characters, probably not even in 14,000.
The oddity portrayed by 1950s comedian Jack Benny tells the story. A robber, gun drawn, approaches demanding, “your money or your life.” Benny’s notoriously cheap character stands and waits with his chin cupped in his hand, then indignantly declares, “I’m thinking about it!”
Trump, who may be the richest person since George Washington to serve as president, said he would have a press conference on Dec. 15 to announce he would turn all his business affairs over to three children – Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr. – to avoid “the appearance of a conflict of interest” while he was president.
The only announcement from Trump Tower on Dec. 15 was that there would be no announcement about his properties. That there would be an announcement “some time” in January. Trump is thinking about it.
The problem for the president-elect and for the nation is the so-called emoluments clause in the Constitution. It is one of those quirky things that will never be repealed, like the Electoral College, freedom of speech and the presidential two-term limit.
Emolument is an 18th century word for payoff. No officer of the federal government may take a payoff from a foreign government. That includes the president. Trump’s properties and his promotions are laced with foreign entanglements. He owns at least 28 hotels/resorts in foreign countries, according to USA Today. Trump has borrowed heavily from foreign banks in Germany, communist China and elsewhere.
His problem is not with owning the hotels, but with what happens when someone patronizes the properties or when he wants to sell them. According to all legal commentaries, and there are many, he cannot earn anything beyond what ordinary market value would bring. Any extra goodies, or vigorish, to use an old Buffalo West Side term, would bring him into a collision with the Constitution.
ConstitutionCenter.org published the best and fairest analysis we saw of the question. A section of this blog said that Trump’s situation would “condemn the American people to uncertainty and innuendo,” and our political system “would be rife … with accusations of corruption.” Among its authors was Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe.
ConstitutionCenter then asks three questions: “Will Trump actually violate [the Constitution]”; if Trump is suspected, how will that be proved; and who will enforce the payoffs clause?
There is no history available on this issue. The crucial point here is who and how would the emoluments clause be enforced on Trump. By a bill of impeachment?
Trump’s best solution would be to place all his property and finances into a blind trust controlled by a nonpartisan committee of eminent lawyers and ethicists for his term of office. Not his family.
But a disturbing report emerged Thursday from the Wall Street Journal. “He is not going to divest,” reporter Monica Langley said. Trump at some point will explain how he is not going to be “involved at all” in his properties, she said.
Also, his sons Eric and Donald Jr. were involved in a charitable reception and excursion charging participants up to $500,000 each the day after inauguration. After NPR disclosed the party with a printed invitation containing the sons’ names, the sons disavowed any connection to it, and the reception dissipated.
It appears Trump may want to finesse the emoluments clause. With Republicans now controlling Congress, he might want to risk it. But it surely would make a very juicy issue for Democrats running for Congress in 2018.