As president, Donald Trump could profit substantially from foreign officials seeking to influence the new leader of the free world, a development that would violate the U.S. Constitution.
From Trump Tower in the Philippines to India and Saudi Arabia, foreign leaders would have an obvious lever to attempt to curry favor with the nation’s 45th president by pushing business to his children or other corporate officials, according to bipartisan ethics lawyers and constitutional scholars.
“There’s enormous potential for foreign influence over national policy, which is something we’ve always guarded against” over the nation’s 240-year history, said Jay Wexler, a law professor at Boston University who published a book on lesser-known constitutional provisions.
Trump plans a Dec. 15 news conference with his children to announce what steps he will take to avoid conflicts of interest. The New York Times reported that the real estate billionaire may transfer operational control of his corporate empire to his two adult sons rather than relinquishing ownership to an independent trustee, as ethics experts are encouraging him to do.
Two initial conflicts could land Trump in immediate violation of the "Emoluments Clause," an anti-bribery provision that forbids the president from receiving gifts from foreign leaders and is derived from the Latin word “emolumentum,” meaning “profit” or “gain.” It says political officials cannot "accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."
The clause is so absolute that, in 1787, it forbade any gifts — even trinkets like copper, baubles and portraits. In 2016, foreign dignitaries booking the new Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House, for his Jan. 20 inauguration and probably a loan from the Bank of China for one of his Manhattan office buildings would be violations, according to legal experts. Both can be considered profits or gains from foreign officials. For instance, on Dec. 7 Bahrain held a national day of celebration at the hotel.
Trump has at least 28 foreign properties and partnerships that could generate money from foreign officials and trigger a violation of the Emoluments Clause, according to a USA TODAY analysis of financial disclosure forms. Beyond those 28 foreign properties are a series of other deals that could expand that list of potential sources of foreign income.
Asked about Trump’s plans, spokesman Jason Miller told reporters: “That will be something that will be discussed in more detail in a week.”
So far, Republican congressional leaders have not called for Trump to sell off his businesses. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Trump is not legally obligated to sell. However, Chaffetz said, "there are public perceptions that I’m sure they’re keenly aware of.”