The Emoluments Clause and the Trump Presidency

4 min read

| By Mark Mikula |

In crafting the Constitution, the members of the Constitutional Convention included a clause limiting the president’s financial gain during his time in office. Known as the Emoluments Clause, Article II, section 1, states: “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”

A separate clause in the Constitution covers issues related to limits on gifts or compensation from foreign countries. Article I, section 9, 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.” Despite the restrictions against offerings, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among other presidents, all accepted gifts from foreign dignitaries without seeking express approval from Congress.

Emolument is derived from a Latin word related to payments made to millers for grinding grain.

The nation’s founders may not have anticipated a president with the business holdings of Donald J. Trump. Prior to Trump’s election, only a handful of presidents could be categorized primarily as businessmen, most notably George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, who earned their livings as oil executives in Texas.

The Trump family, whose income had primarily been derived in the real estate industry prior to the 2016 election, has businesses that range from hotels to golf courses to casinos. Trump has also branded various product lines, including steaks, bottled water, and clothing with the Trump name. While Trump has voluntarily stepped aside from running his businesses, he did not, as some advised, put his personal assets into a blind trust, which would have provided a buffer between White House decision making and his fortunes. Trump’s sons still run the companies that bear the family name.

During the time that Trump has been in office, people have debated whether business generated by the decisions made by the administration and various travel and lodging arrangements made during his tenure are violating the Emoluments Clause by benefiting Trump companies.

A handful of court cases brought against the president regarding the Emoluments Clause have either been dismissed or allowed to proceed. U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte allowed a case brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., to move forward on July 25, 2018. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which opened a few blocks from the White House in October of 2016, has hosted politicians and foreign dignitaries during Trump’s time as president. Specifically, the plaintiffs contend that Trump’s financial gains from the hotel amount to a violation of the Emoluments Clause. It remains for the courts to decide whether the cases have merit.

Conflict of Interest” from American Law Yearbook, 2017: A Guide to the Year’s Major Legal Cases and Developments in Opposing Viewpoints In Context refers to the Emoluments Clause in discussing various instances of potential presidential conflict-of-interest cases.

The Federalist No. 55” from The Constitution and the Supreme Court in U.S. History In Context reaches back to a time when the nation’s founders were debating issues of conflict of interest from different perspectives during the Constitution’s ratification process.

Amendment Proposals” from Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning in Student Resources In Context provides insight on efforts to make the language in the Constitution even more strict in distinguishing the American form of government from various monarchical arrangements in other countries.

Two States File Emoluments Lawsuit against President Trump” and “D.C. and Maryland Sue President Trump for Emoluments Clause Violations” both from GVRL’s Historic Documents of 2017 (CQ Press, an imprint of SAGE Publications) address issues related to the ongoing legal proceedings surrounding potential White House conflicts of interest.


About the Author

Mark Mikula is a senior content developer for several of Gale’s history databases. In his travels, he has attended numerous film and theater festivals; the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut; and the oldest consecutively held Fourth of July celebration in Bristol, Rhode Island.


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