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Historians: Donald Trump is definitely in violation of the Emoluments Clause

A Georgetown law professor has found that the Trump administration's definition of "emoluments" may not hold up


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Matthew Rozsa
September 6, 2017 6:23PM (UTC)

As President Donald Trump's legal team prepares their argument for a lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, they are hoping to prove that the president didn't violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause because "emolument" doesn't mean what CREW says it does.

Unfortunately for them, Georgetown law professor has concluded that CREW is more likely to be correct on this than the Trump administration.

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According to a report by NPR, John Mikhail and his researchers studied all of the known dictionaries between 1604 and 1806, amounting to 40 total, and discovered that 37 of them defined 'emoluments' using "a broader meaning that would encompass sort of the profits of ordinary market transactions." While the other three defined the term with "a narrow, even technical meaning, tied to the salary or official duties of an office," nearly all of the dictionaries used the words 'profit,' 'advantage' and 'gain' in their definitions.

Although the Justice Department is defending itself by choosing definitions that conflate emoluments with words like "office" and "employ," Mikhail argued that "they had selected, maybe cherry-picked even, a couple of dictionary definitions."

Trump lawyer Sheri Dillon aroused controversy in January when she declared that the president-elect couldn't have violated the emoluments clause because "the so-called Emoluments Clause has never been interpreted, however, to apply to fair value exchanges that have absolutely nothing to do with an office holder. No one would have thought when the Constitution was written that paying your hotel bill was an emolument. Instead, it would have been thought of as a value-for-value exchange; not a gift, not a title, and not an emolument."

As George Washington University Law School lecturer Randall Eliason told The Washington Post at the time: "This whole thing is uncertain and unprecedented because past presidents have been so careful to avoid even an appearance of violating the clause, and because no past president had anywhere near the extensive international holdings that Trump does. So we are really sailing in uncharted waters."

The report comes as a USA Today story noted that the president's golf clubs are being patronized by CEOs, many of whom have federal contracts.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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