As President Trump travels through Asia this week, the American people should ask themselves: Will the president be acting only on behalf of us and our nation’s best interests? Or will he be on the lookout for ways to line his own pockets?
These are questions that America’s Founders hoped would never have to be asked. They made it very clear in the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause that the president should have no financial entanglements abroad that could influence his judgment. Yet, because Trump continues to refuse to divest his holdings or place them in a truly blind trust, or get Congress’ consent to accept the foreign benefits and payments he has been receiving since day one of his presidency, we can’t help but have doubts.
When Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down together Wednesday, did they limit their conversation to issues of state, such as the global economy and international security? Or did they also send signals over trademarks that the Chinese government has granted to the president’s businesses or may grant in the future? When Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, did they discuss the challenges posed by trade policy and by North Korea, or did they also chat about the future of Trump’s South Korean business partner in the construction of six condominium properties in Seoul and neighboring cities?
Trump’s previous two forays abroad raised similar questions. When he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in July, did they restrict their discussion to Russia’s hacking of the 2016 election and security issues related to Syria, Ukraine and North Korea? Or might they have talked about fostering more ties between Trump businesses and Russia?
It’s possible that Trump even favors nations whose representatives patronize his businesses. After all, Trump International Hotel in Washington — a short walk from the White House — “actively courts” foreign diplomats for their patronage.
Because of his lack of transparency, we have no real way to know whose interests Trump has in mind during his interactions with world leaders. That’s why more than 200 members of Congress filed suit against the president for violating the plain text of the Constitution, which bars him from accepting, “without the Consent of the Congress … any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”
“If there’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words, it’s the president of the United States, as we speak, traveling abroad,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, whose name appears first on the congressional lawsuit.
The Founders’ clear intent was to safeguard the public trust and ensure the government’s independence against corrupting influences. Officeholders were to answer only to the American people and not to foreign nations that might offer the chance for personal enrichment in exchange for favors. The Framers made Congress the institution to which federal officials must go before accepting any foreign government benefits, giving every member of Congress a critical role in strengthening our government’s transparency and accountability.
President Trump, of course, has never sought approval from Congress for any emoluments he has received. Instead, he made himself his own ethical judge and decided for himself what might or might not compromise his independence, denying members of Congress their constitutional responsibility.
“Allowing large streams of foreign government funds to go undisclosed and unreviewed would create a risk of undue influence through the entanglement of private funds and public decisions,” according to an amici brief filed by 22 national security experts, including former Secretaries of State John Kerry and Madeline Albright and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“It would undermine U.S. anti-corruption and good governance efforts around the globe as a key tenet of U.S. national security and foreign policy, and it would inject confusion and fragmentation into our diplomatic relations by allowing foreign officials multiple opportunities for leverage in our national security and foreign policy. Our security decisions should be based on national interest, not private gain.”
The cloud that hangs over Trump’s every interaction with foreign governments reminds us of the wisdom of our Constitution’s Framers, who cared passionately about preventing corruption in our government. “If we don’t provide against corruption,” Virginia statesman George Mason said in 1787, “our government will soon be at an end.” The Foreign Emoluments Clause is a vital part of their anti-corruption design.
President Trump should abide by his constitutional obligation to seek Congress’ consent before accepting any payments, profits or business advantage from foreign governments. The American people deserve to know that when their president is on the world stage he is acting only in their best interest, not his own.