Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released a report Thursday documenting at least $7.8 million in payments from foreign governments that former President Donald Trump’s hotel and apartment businesses received while he was in the White House.
Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign did not immediately reply to a request for comment from NBC News.
According to the Democrats’ report, patrons of Trump businesses included leaders or government officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, India and Afghanistan. The single biggest spender was China, which reportedly paid more than $5.5 million to Trump-owned properties. These payments went to hotels and other businesses Trump owned in Washington, Las Vegas and New York City. The House report says “these countries spent — often lavishly — on apartments and hotel stays at Donald Trump’s properties.”
All of these payments are illegal, as I and many others have pointed out since 2016 when we urged Trump to sell his businesses before assuming the presidency. Such payments are flatly prohibited by the Constitution. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution, Emoluments Clause forbids the president and every other person holding a position of trust with the United States government, from accepting gifts or “emoluments” (profits and benefits) “of any kind whatever” from foreign governments without first obtaining “Consent of the Congress” to do so. This includes any payments from corporations and other entities controlled by foreign governments.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, wrote in the foreword of the report that “Donald Trump, while holding the office of president, used his business entities to pocket millions of dollars from foreign states and royalty and never once went to Congress to seek its consent.”
As Norman Eisen, Laurence Tribe and I pointed out in a 2016 report for the Brookings Institution, the founders were very concerned about foreign governments corrupting federal officials.
Bribery of course is illegal, but quid pro quo bribery is hard to prove. Bribery by foreign governments is even more dangerous, and any financial entanglement of a U.S. government official with a foreign government is dangerous whether there is an express quid pro quo. Hence the prophylactic provision embedded in the Emoluments Clause — no gifts or profits and benefits from foreign governments while holding federal office without the consent of Congress.
From Day 1 of his administration, however, Trump chose to ignore the Constitution. As I warned in an op-ed in The New York Times in December 2016, before he took office, this would constitute a grave national security risk. I warned that prohibited foreign emoluments will “arise whenever foreign diplomats stay in Trump hotels at their governments’ expense, whenever parties are organized by foreign governments in Trump hotels…. whenever rent is paid by companies controlled by foreign governments with offices in Trump buildings; and whenever there is any other arrangement whereby foreign government money goes into the president’s businesses.”
We learned Thursday — seven years later — that is exactly what happened.
So, who enforces the emoluments clause? Congress is supposed to enforce it by investigating and, if necessary, impeaching a president or any other public official who violates the Constitution if the conduct amounts to “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But when Republicans controlled Congress when Trump was in office, they had little interest in investigating Trump’s foreign emoluments — or, for that matter, anything else that he did.
When Democrats controlled Congress they were absorbed with other potentially even more serious Trump scandals, such as his 2019 attempt to extort Ukraine, which led to his first impeachment, and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, which led to his second impeachment. Even the U.S. Capitol being invaded by a mob that forced members of Congress to cover and hide was not enough to persuade Republicans in the Senate to convict him.
Now, three years and four criminal indictments later, we face the prospect of this man being elected again to the presidency. That would likely mean four more years of illegal foreign government payoffs for the Trump Organization, other violations of the Constitution and, just for good measure, perhaps another insurrection.
In the midst of this chaos and corruption, Trump’s emoluments fell through the cracks. We knew he was getting lots of money, probably millions of dollars, from foreign governments, but nobody could prove it. Until this week. The House Democrats finally did get their hands on some of the records fom Mazars, Trump’s former accounting firm, and thus far have found $7.8 million in illegal foreign payments — some would say payoffs — to President Trump.
Raskin wrote in the report that the $7.8 million is “almost certainly only a fraction of Trump’s harvest of unlawful foreign state money, but this figure in itself is a scandal and a decisive spur to action.”
What can we do about this? Congress must pass legislation empowering both the Justice Department and the Congress to enforce the Emoluments Clause. Presently, there are no criminal penalties for foreign government payments to federal officials. There should be. Congress and the Treasury Department also should be able to file civil suits for disgorgement of these illegal payoffs. In 2021, I proposed such legislation, and indeed the same year the House in 2021 passed a bill doing just that. H.R.5314, the Protecting Our Democracy Act, provided for enforcement of the Emoluments Clause. But the Senate, then controlled by the GOP and beholden to Donald Trump, killed it.
It’s about time we enforced the Constitution if we value our democracy. That includes the Emoluments Clause. And yes, that also includes another equally important provision, 14th Amendment Section 3, which bars from public office anyone who took an oath of office to support the United States Constitution and then participated in or gave aid or comfort to an insurrection. And, yes, that prohibition against supporting an insurrection would include the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. And, yes, that means Donald Trump should be barred from office.
And this means 2024 may be the year for the voters to do what Congress thus far has never done: Say “no” to those responsible for the violations of some of the most important provisions of our Constitution. Say “no” to Donald Trump.
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