President Trump and his companies have been trying to navigate potential conflicts and the emoluments clause of the Constitution since before he was sworn in. The list of questions about those conflicts continues to grow, including how Trump is adhering to constitutional rules around compensation from foreign leaders and states.
This past weekend, Trump sidestepped an apparent emolument when he said that he would personally pay for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife to visit Mar-a-Lago, a resort Trump owns in Florida. That meant the government of Japan did not pay Trump's for-profit club for the lodging.
Even with his sons managing the Trump Organization, there are lines Trump's own lawyer identified that still seem blurry. At a press conference in January laying out a number of ways the organization planned to avoid conflicts of interest without fully divesting, Trump lawyer Sheri Dillon specified, "no new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump's presidency." She assured the press that the president would have no direct knowledge of the business's strategic moves — despite the fact his sons would take over the brand. The buck seems to have stopped there.
The Trump Organization is pushing to expand a golf course and hotel in Scotland. Eric Trump, who with his brother is leading the family business, recently visited the Dominican Republic, where a branding deal for a resort may be in the works. Both potential deals may violate Dillon's statements. The organization did not respond to our request for comment on either matter.
And on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that China is about to grant Trump something he has been seeking for a decade: the valuable trademark right to the Trump brand name in the Chinese market. Granting that right would, in effect, be giving the Trump Organization the ability to make much more money in that market, again raising ethical questions.
The issue isn't just potential violations of the organization's promises. It is the bar against foreign emoluments, or compensation due to one's office or employment, which comes straight out of the Constitution. In Article I, Section 9, the Constitution specifies, "no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States] shall, without Consent of Congress, accept ... any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."
Historically, constitutional scholars have interpreted this section as an anti-bribery clause, but there is virtually no case law to know how it would be used in practice. But many legal scholars worry any foreign deals could be perceived as an attempt to get in the president's good graces. There is, however, one part of the provision that hasn't gotten much attention: congressional consent. Norm Eisen, an attorney who co-wrote a lawsuit challenging President Trump on emoluments, said the framers "left a safety valve." He suggested that the president should let Congress "do the oversight" and decide whether the organization's and the president's choices are "emolument[s] or not."
So far, the administration has made no such move, and in the first hundred days, has continued to find itself in ethically questionable situations. Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said Trump "seems to refuse to try to steer away from situations that will cause problems," including the president's trip with Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Mar-a-Lago and Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's comments endorsing Ivanka Trump's brand, for which the White House said she was later "counseled."
Eisen said ordinarily these incidents would be relatively minor news because, "people do stumble over these rules," but with the existing turmoil over White House ethics, both moments quickly became national stories.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The list of President Trump's business deals keeps getting longer. So does the list of questions about his conflicts of interest. The central issue is emoluments, payments that benefit the president and have ties to foreign governments. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Trump operation has been trying to navigate the emoluments issue since before he was sworn in. At a press conference last month, Trump lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out a decision to avoid one source of emoluments - new business deals.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SHERI DILLON: The trust agreement, as directed by President Trump, imposes severe restrictions on new deals.
OVERBY: She spelled it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
DILLON: No new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump's presidency. New domestic deals will be allowed. But they will go through a vigorous vetting process.
OVERBY: Emolument questions keep on coming. The Trump Organization pushes to expand a golf course and hotel in Scotland. Eric Trump visits the Dominican Republic, where a branding deal for a resort may be in the works. The Trump Organization's general counsel didn't respond to a request for comment.
Trump sidestepped an apparent emolument just last week. He took the Japanese prime minister and his wife to Mar-a-Lago, the resort Trump owns in Florida and said he personally would pay for his guests. That meant the government of Japan did not pay Trump's for-profit club for their lodging.
LARRY NOBLE: For some reason, he really seems to refuse to try to steer away from situations that will cause problems.
OVERBY: Larry Noble is general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.
NOBLE: It's not like he's going to try to minimize the problem. But rather, he apparently is just going to keep going through and using what he wants to use and taking these kind of half-steps.
OVERBY: The bar against foreign emoluments is straight out of the Constitution. But another part of the provision hasn't gotten much attention.
NORM EISEN: The framers left the safety valve.
OVERBY: Norm Eisen co-wrote a lawsuit challenging President Trump on emoluments.
EISEN: Let Mr. Trump go to Congress transaction by transaction. Congress will do the oversight and will say, is it an emolument or not? But the framers did not intend for him to make those decisions.
OVERBY: Instead, questions about emoluments and conflicts of interest have been piling up through the Trump administration's first hundred days. Eisen points to the case of presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. In a TV interview last week, she urged viewers to buy merchandise marketed by Ivanka Trump. Product endorsements are against the law for federal employees. Eisen said that ordinarily this would be relatively minor news.
EISEN: A mistake, a clear violation but people do stumble over these rules.
OVERBY: But with the turmoil over White House ethics, it became a national headline story. And Republicans and Democrats in Congress have called on the administration to discipline Conway.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "AUGUSTA FALLS" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.