Does Emoluments Clause Apply to POTUS? Legal Expert Explains

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- After President Donald Trump said he's receiving unjustified scrutiny due to the "phony Emoluments Clause" some are wondering where the legal line for emoluments is drawn.

Trump was referencing the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution as he defended his previous decision to host next year's G-7 summit with world leaders at his Doral resort in Miami. He has since rescinded those plans after critics questioned if that would violate the law.

The Emoluments Clause is in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution and states:

"No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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."

The word emolument is derived from the Latin word "emolumentum," which means "profit" or "gain." Mark Kende, director of the Drake Constitutional Law Center, said the Emoluments Clause was designed to prevent conflicts of interests so elected officials aren't being bribed by foreign leaders.

"The founders were real concerned about foreign influence," he said. "It's the combination of foreign influence and concern that the office is being used to enhance personal wealth is what creates the Emoluments Clause issue."

On a satellite call with reporters Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley was asked about whether or not hosting the G-7 summit at President Trump's Doral hotel would violate the Emoluments Clause. Grassley questioned whether all lawmakers benefit from their own experience in one way or another, citing his family farm he still runs.

"There’s a farm program and I’m a family farmer. I'm in a 50/50 operation where I share a risk with my son, I benefit from the farm program," Grassley said.

However, Kendle said Grassley's situation is different, and would not violate the clause.

"It’s a generic, general program. Whereas here you have someone [Trump] who is wealthy and arguably using their power to acquire more wealth," he said.

This is not the first time Trump has been challenged for his business dealings in relation to his office. In July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit from Maryland and D.C. that alleged Trump violated the Emoluments Clause by benefiting from his business while in office. However, the full appeals court agreed to rehear the case.

The suit pointed to financial benefits the president has received during his time in office; specifically citing government bookings at his hotel in D.C.

Kendle said this isn't the first time presidents or other important government officials have had conflicts of interest with their personal businesses. However, he said Trump has not put his financial matters into a completely blind, separate trust.

"There’s just a concern that because he hasn’t created a completely blind trust and these are real estate developments and hotels where people can stay and therefore pay him money," Kendle said.

However, the Trump and his staff have doubled down, saying that the president does not financially benefit from his office.

Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said in a press conference last Thursday, "he does not profit from being here, he has no interest in profit from being here," citing that the Trump donates his salary to other government entities.

Kendle said if the president were to have gone forward with holding the G-7 summit at his Doral resort, it would have set a bad precedent.

"These foreign leaders come with entourages, so you’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars or more that will benefit essentially Trump's financial holdings," he said. "The controversy here is they aren’t his public actions these are his private financial holdings and that’s where part of the legal disputing is."

Kendle said that this is where the questions lie: does the Emoluments Clause apply to the president's private financial dealings? He said it's a lot of gray area, and will ultimately be up to the courts for interpretation.

Despite this, President Trump continued to defend his previous decision to host G-7 at his resort on Monday, saying he would have offered to host the summit at no cost.

“I own a property in Florida. I would have given it for nothing,” Trump said. “The Democrats went crazy, even though I would have done it for free.”

In the meantime, President Trump has suggested next year's G-7 summit is held at Camp David. Nothing has been decided yet.

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