The emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution states:
“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”.
The word ‘emolument’ is a salary, fee or profit. This includes anything money or profit obtained from any business dealings.
In most cases what has happened to get around this is to set up a blind trust. A blind trust is one in which the trust beneficiaries have no knowledge of the holdings of the trust, and no right to intervene in their handling. In a blind trust, the trustees have full discretion over the assets. Blind trusts are generally used when a trust creator wishes that the beneficiary to be unaware of the assets in the trust, such as to avoid conflict of interest between the beneficiary and the investments.
The US federal government recognises what are called a ‘qualified blind trust’ where the trustee must not be affiliated with, associated with, related to or subject to the control or influence of the government official. The trustee should not be a current or former investment advisor, partner, accountant, attorney, relative or any other similarly situated individual.
These arrangements are of course farcical. Before a person becomes a government official, or a President, they will know very well what their assets are and what they can expect to receive by way of profit from them. Upon becoming a government official, or President, the only way there could not be a conflict of interest is if the government official, or President, immediately became completely forgetful. This is clearly a smoke screen developed by the wealthy to protect the assets of the wealthy, while giving an appearance of being ethical and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Trump said in January that he will place his vast business empire in a trust controlled by his two oldest sons and would take other steps in an attempt to remove any suggestion of a conflict of interest. This is of course, laughable and Walter M. Shaub Jr, Director of the Office of Government Ethics delivered a statement at the Brookings Institution on January 11. That statement included, in part, the admonition that ‘The plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards… that every President in the past four decades has met.” He continued, “I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label “trust”. His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.”
Despite this statement being delivered on January 11, nothing has apparently happened in response. Trump’s sons still run his businesses and although he has removed himself from the board of directors of the company that runs Trump Tower, he remains the company’s owner and profits from its dealings. A recent purchase of a penthouse at Trump Tower was by the founder and managing director of Global Alliance Associates, which is a company that consults for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Trump is therefore accepting money from a company that works with the U.S. government.
A lawsuit has been filed by Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the Emoluments clause. It is rumoured that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is also looking for a plaintiff to sue for business lost to one of Trump’s hotels during his presidency. Trump has correctly deflected criticism by repeatedly asserting that the law barring executive branch officials from maintaining businesses does not apply to the President or Vice-President. However, given Trump’s almost nonexistent grasp of propriety, questions regarding the perception of corruptibility are likely to persist as long as this sort of clear conflict of interest lasts. Some Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would force Trump to divest himself of his businesses or face impeachment. However, such a bill is unlikely to get up given the lack of understanding of most current Republicans of the concept of ‘conflict of interest’.
This makes you wonder how far the Republicans will go in support of Trump. Will they follow him just long enough to get their legislative agenda through to appease all their donors, before they give him the boot, or will they follow him all the way down the rabbit hole of oblivion. If it is the latter, then you would have to wonder if it was only the Trump camp that had links to Russia, because it would take the U.S. from a democracy to a kleptocracy.