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With the first reality television star sworn into the highest office in the land comes the first lawsuit challenging the receipt of foreign television royalties as an alleged violation of the U.S. Constitution.
On Monday, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed suit against President Donald Trump in New York federal court. The complaint — backed by a legal all-star team including Laurence Tribe, Norman Eisen, Erwin Chemerinsky, Richard Painter and others — puts a spotlight on Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, known as the “Foreign Emoluments Clause.”
That section states that no U.S. officeholder may accept any present, office or title from a foreign state.
“As the Framers were aware, private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders, and entanglements between American officials and foreign powers could pose a creeping, insidious threat to the Republic,” states the complaint. “The Foreign Emoluments Clause was forged of the Framers’ hard-won wisdom. It is no relic of a bygone era, but rather an expression of insight into the nature of the human condition and the preconditions of self- governance. And applied to Donald J. Trump’s diverse dealings, the text and purpose of the Foreign Emoluments Clause speak as one: this cannot be allowed.”
Since Trump won the election, there’s been ample discussion of emoluments with some debate for example whether Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel can accept payment from foreign visitors who may book rooms there in order to curry favor with him. The latest lawsuit not only addresses this, but specifically targets “payments from foreign-government-owned broadcasters related to rebroadcasts and foreign versions of the television program The Apprentice and its spinoffs.”
Trump once claimed he was paid over $213 million from NBC, although the disclosure form he filed with the FEC put more recent income at a more modest $4.3 million. Nevertheless, he’s retained his executive producer title on the latest incarnation of Celebrity Apprentice, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and might still be profiting from this.
Before his inauguration, Trump held a press conference that showcased a plan to deal with conflicts. He said he’d resign from various companies, although he wouldn’t forsake all profits from his business empire. Trump did pledge to donate foreign profits generated from his hotels to the U.S. Treasury. It’s not clear whether this also goes to Apprentice royalties — and whether it would really satisfy the Foreign Emoluments Clause. The Office of Government Ethics has been pushing him to divest.
Pointing out that there are iterations of The Apprentice in the United Kingdom and Vietnam on foreign-government-owned broadcast stations, the complaint alleges, “Now that he is President, Defendant’s acceptance of any such payments from foreign states or their agents or instrumentalities without congressional consent constitutes a violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.”
The lawsuit addresses a largely untested area of constitutional law. Before the filing of the lawsuit, come observers pointed to the way that previous presidents including Barack Obama took foreign royalties from book sales while in office.
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics is demanding a declaratory judgment that certain activities are violating or will violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause. If the plaintiff can get past any standing issues and get judges to accept its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, injunctive relief is demanded that enjoins Trump from violation.
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