Our Country Is Not For Sale—Or, Why the Emoluments Clause Matters

Ethics and Democracy | June 15, 2017

It should go without saying: our country is not for sale. Sadly, we can’t take this for granted under Trump.

Fortunately, our Founding Fathers knew this could happen. That’s why they drafted clear-cut language into the Constitution to protect the United States from corruption and foreign influence. The Founding Fathers wanted elected officials to derive their power from the people and pursue national interests, not personal financial gain. That language is called the “Emoluments Clause” of the Constitution.

What is this “Emoluments” thing?

You may not have heard of “emoluments” before—that’s okay, most people, even in DC, hadn’t either until Donald Trump became president. It just means any profit, benefit, or gain made from ordinary business dealings. The little known Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution restricts members of the government from receiving these types of benefits from foreign countries without the approval of Congress, even if in exchange for services in a private capacity. This includes the President.

Of course, lots of people have potential conflicts of interest in some form—but the Constitution provides a clear way to for federal office holders to resolve them: getting the consent of Congress. If Congress knows about potential conflicts of interests and approves them, our system is working; there is transparency and checks and balances. Even Benjamin Franklin sought (and received) congressional approval to keep a diamond encrusted snuff box that was a gift from King Louis XVI.

Donald Trump is openly flouting this very clear requirement of the Constitution.

As he himself repeatedly points out, Trump has an extensive, international business network. And he has not shared his tax returns with Congress or the public (see our explainer). As a result, neither Congress nor the American people can fully assess his conflicts of interest.

The following are just some of the examples of business dealings that could constitute foreign emoluments to Trump:

But the bigger problem? There could be many conflicts of interest we don’t even know about. He hasn’t told the public, and he certainly hasn’t sought consent from Congress. He wants us just to take his word—and we all know how reliable his word can be.

The Congressional Emoluments Lawsuit.

Because Trump refuses to divest himself of his business holdings or fully disclose his conflicts of interest to Congress, Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) and Representative John Conyers (MI-13), along with 194 other members of Congress, have filed a lawsuit to force Trump to comply with the Constitution.

THIS IS A BIG DEAL. It is the largest Congressional lawsuit in history, and courts are likely to take it seriously.

What can you do? Encourage your Members of Congress to join the lawsuit.

Donald Trump’s unchecked foreign business dealings directly threaten our country and our democracy. This is not a partisan issue—it’s a question of respect for the rule of law. We must all act to protect our democracy.

Your Member of Congress (MoC) has taken an oath to “support and defend the Constitution,” which includes the Emoluments Clause. If your MoC is a plaintiff (the full list of plaintiffs is here), feel free to thank him/her for defending the Constitution. If your MoC is not already a plaintiff in this lawsuit, ask your MoC today to join the lawsuit asking courts to hold Trump accountable to the Constitution and require him to obtain consent from Congress if he wants to accept benefits from foreign states. Please only contact House members for the time being, not Senators—while it would be great if more Senators joined this lawsuit as well, defeating Trumpcare in the Senate is more important right now!

Sample Call Script

For MoC who is NOT a plaintiff

Caller: Good morning/afternoon! My name is ______, and I am a constituent of Representative/Senator ______. I know that Representative/Senator _____ realizes how important the Constitution is, so I am calling to encourage him/her to join as a plaintiff in the Blumenthal & Conyers v. Trump lawsuit. I am really concerned that Donald Trump is not complying with the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution; our country is not and should not be for sale. Would Representative/Senator _____ consider joining on as a plaintiff in this suit?