Trump on the Take? Foreign Govts Paid His Businesses Millions When He Was in Office
Numerous apparent violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause.
LAST WEEK, DEMOCRATIC STAFF for the House Oversight Committee released a report provocatively entitled “White House for Sale: How Princes, Prime Ministers, and Premiers Paid Off President Trump.” The report details some $7.8 million that Donald Trump’s businesses received from foreign countries during his presidency. But that figure, the report explains, is likely a mere fraction of the total, since it represents just two of his four years in office, just four of his five hundred businesses, and just twenty of the world’s nearly two hundred countries.
We would know a lot more about these scandalous and arguably unconstitutional payments if Trump and congressional Republicans hadn’t fought to block the public from getting this information. In September 2022, after years of litigation, the committee won a court-supervised settlement agreement forcing Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars, to produce documents responsive to a congressional subpoena. But when Republicans took over the House in January 2023, Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer released Mazars from having to comply further.
The report thus covers only a sliver of the universe of information that’s undoubtedly relevant to the Trump Organization’s enrichment from foreign countries while he was in office. Still, it’s critically important both for what it says about the holes in the existing laws that are supposed to prevent self-enrichment and corruption in the Oval Office, including the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, and because it gives Americans further insight into what can be expected of Trump in a second term: more of the same. Much more.
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The biggest source of foreign payouts to Trump entities that’s highlighted in the report is China—one of the countries that House Republicans are desperately trying to suggest President Joe Biden is illicitly linked with as part of their sham impeachment inquiry. In a press release last November, Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) published evidence of Biden’s supposed “corruption”: A copy of a personal check for $40,000 written out to him by his sister-in-law, Sara Biden. That’s right. A check from his sister-in-law. Comer weaves a tortured tale of how the “money trail” actually began in 2017 when the president’s son, Hunter Biden, “demanded payment from his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) linked associate.” From there it’s hard to follow, frankly.
Whatever speculation and innuendo House Republicans can make of Sara Biden’s personal check, it’s a far cry from what the Committee’s Democratic staff gleaned from snippets of Mazar documents and public records from the Securities and Exchange Committee regarding Trump: “more than $5.5 million in spending at Trump-owned properties during former President Trump’s time in office by the government of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), as well as by the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and Hainan Airlines Holding Company, a Chinese state-owned airline.” The report asserts that, at the same time, Trump “inexplicably took positions favorable to specific Chinese interests.” For example:
From November 8 to November 10, 2017—after the Chinese Embassy had spent at least $19,391 as an advance deposit for a stay beginning in late August 2017 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.—then-President Trump traveled to China where he lavished praise on President Xi and, notably, defended Chinese trade practices in stark contrast to his previous public pronouncements blaming China’s policies for the U.S.-China trade imbalance.
Given House Republicans’ tirades over the Biden family’s alleged ties with Chinese money, we can presumably take it as a universal, bipartisan given that presidents personally accepting money from foreign countries is a problem. It incentivizes them to prioritize their personal interests over those of the United States and the American people whom they’ve taken an oath to serve with fidelity to the Constitution.
MOREOVER, THE CONSTITUTION’S Foreign Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9, clause 8) states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], 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.” Although it was common before the Constitution’s framing for foreign emissaries to accept lavish gifts from royalty, the U.S. Constitution borrowed from a Dutch rule that forbade foreign ministers from taking “any presents, directly or indirectly, in any manner or way whatever.” At the Virginia convention for ratifying the Constitution, Governor Edmund Randolph remarked: “It was thought proper, in order to exclude corruption and foreign influence, to prohibit any one in office from receiving or holding any emoluments from foreign states.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional scholar and the Oversight Committee’s ranking member, asserts in the report’s foreword that “Former President Trump violated both the clear commands of the Constitution and the careful precedent set and observed by every previous Commander-in-Chief.” Recall that when he first took office, Trump refused to divest himself of his business interests. (It has been “a relatively longstanding precedent” for presidents to voluntarily do so, “including Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.”) Once installed, Trump failed to obtain the consent of Congress before accepting payments to his businesses from foreign governments, as the Foreign Emoluments Clause requires. And he then refused to comply with congressional requests for information, instead aggressively litigating against the committee when it attempted to obtain records from the Mazars firm. In 2020, over Justice Samuel Alito’s lone dissent, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Trump’s argument that congressional requests for his accounting records violated the separation of powers.
As with other constitutional provisions that are in the news these days (namely, Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which disqualifies officeholders-turned-insurrectionists from the ballot), the Foreign Emoluments Clause is vulnerable to lawyerly gymnastics. Some scholars have argued that—as with the Disqualification Clause—the word “Office” in the Foreign Emoluments Clause does not cover presidents. There’s also a debate over whether the term “Emolument” itself covers arms-length business transactions that could personally benefit a president, or whether it’s instead confined to pay-to-play compensation made directly to a president for personal services performed by him. The only federal court to have directly considered this question—the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.—adopted the broader reading, holding that the term “emolument” reached any “profit, gain, or advantage, of more than de minimis value.” Although another case was moving forward in the U.S. District Court in Maryland while Trump was in office, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that it be dismissed as moot once Biden became president.
But unlike the Disqualification Clause issue, which the Supreme Court agreed to hear on an appeal from the Colorado Supreme Court last week, the reach of the Emoluments Clause won’t be resolved before the next president takes office. Which means we might as well consider it dead. As Raskin notes, “These payments were made while these governments were promoting specific foreign policy goals with the Trump Administration and even, at times, with President Trump himself, and as they were requesting specific actions from the United States to advance their own national policy objectives.” If Trump wins in November, he will come into office knowing that his businesses can take such money with utter impunity—because in this, as in so many other areas where he broke norms, flouted the law, and defied the Constitution, he did so without consequences. Expect the floodgates of corruption to open completely.