We Sued Trump for Emoluments Violations. That Fight’s Just Getting Started.

February 8, 2021
In The News

Trump’s departure from the White House may have effectively terminated the case against him, but we still secured a significant victory: Judge Peter J. Messitte of the Maryland federal district court ruled in 2018, the year after we filed suit, that the Constitution forbids the president from receiving anything of value from a foreign or domestic government.... Now Congress must build upon that to broadly preclude future presidential conflicts and self-dealing.... The struggle to defend the Constitution during the Trump era yielded the bitter realization that too many of the guardrails upholding our democracy are untested or unenforceable. As three participants in that effort, we believe it would be irresponsible for the country to move past this period without action to address these vulnerabilities. Congress and the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris Administration must work together to reinforce the checks on a rogue president and build stronger controls into the system. Fortunately, Congress is reportedly set to consider legislation in the weeks ahead—the landmark HR1-SB1 package, sponsored by Congressman John Sarbanes and Senator Jeff Merkley—that offers several badly-needed reforms to protect the public from a corrupt president. Known as the “For the People Act of 2021,” the legislation applies the same sort of tough ethics rules that apply to executive branch appointees to the president. Our litigation made it abundantly clear that a president can slip through many current loopholes to evade accountability. Chief among them: The president is not bound by the same ethics rules and conflicts rules that other public officials must follow and is not subject to any real requirements regarding transparency. Sarbanes’ and Merkley’s bill heightens disclosure requirements around financial entanglements and requires the president and vice president to divest from ties that pose a potential conflict. This one-two punch offers a model approach to preventing presidential corruption, combining tough, enforceable rules on divestiture with greater transparency. In the Trump years, the American people were often left wondering whether the president was acting to benefit his own bottom line rather than their well-being. These proposals would fix that, making it easier for the public and the courts to hold a corrupt president accountable. The legislation also builds additional, automatic anti-corruption safeguards into the White House.... Finally, the legislation would make it a legal requirement that all candidates for president and vice president must disclose their tax returns for the 10 years preceding their run for office. The public should not have to rely on presidential goodwill or leaks to the press to understand how candidates made their money—or, for that matter, how much they’ve paid in taxes. With this law, all candidates would understand they must trade some degree of financial privacy for the privilege of campaigning for the people’s trust. To ensure that no future president can profit from the office as Trump did, Congress should also pass a law enforcing the emoluments prohibition. To avoid any doubt about how to deal with a rogue president like Trump, the law should codify Judge Messitte’s ruling—specifically that the Emoluments Clauses refer to anything of value. Turning that strong template into a statute—limiting the receipt of foreign or domestic emoluments—would shut off any spigot of money flowing from foreign or domestic governments into the president’s coffers.