Upon taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump promised the American people he would take adequate steps to ensure as few ethical concerns as possible, such as placing his business into a trust and donating profits generated from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
But few people have taken the president at his word -- after all, the trust he promised is not a blind trust, and Trump has access to his money whenever he wishes. Now, a recent announcement by the Trump Organization has brought the notion of emoluments back into the spot light.
Trump Organization compliance officer George Sorial announced that the organization made an unspecified “voluntary contribution” to the Treasury Department, fulfilling Trump’s “pledge to donate profits from foreign government patronage at our hotels and similar businesses” while Trump is President.
A week later, Eric Trump confirmed a report that the voluntary donation was $151,470. For that low—and certainly inadequate—sum, the Trumps bought some positive news coverage from a few media outlets. Compliance experts and serious journalists were more skeptical. The announcement raised more questions than it answered and highlighted this administration’s disregard for norms of transparency, ethics, and the public interest.
That the announcement raised questions is no surprise -- the Trump Organization does not fully account for the patronage of foreign government officials, as noted in the Trump Organization Pamphlet on Foreign Profits:
To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand. It is not the intention nor design of this policy for our Properties to attempt to identify individual travelers who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity on foreign government business.
As is apparent in the pamphlet's language, the president's company places higher importance on "guest experience of [its] brand" than it does the U.S. Constitution.
Further, Trump's accounting for emoluments goes only so far as company profits, which Clark notes is but one aspect of potential benefits to the president via foreign patronage.
The Constitution prohibits the acceptance of “emoluments,” not “profits” as that term is understood in the modern, complex business vernacular. Emoluments are any benefits, advantages, gains or returns associated with payments from foreign governments. Yes, emoluments include profits, but they are by no means limited to profits.
Every foreign dollar spent at a Trump property benefits the first family. Booking empty rooms in a month when a hotel is losing money may not generate a profit, but reducing the Trumps’ losses obviously provides a benefit. Also, the Trumps could easily manipulate—and minimize—what they deem a “profit” for their Washington hotel by accelerating the amortization of their up-front renovation costs.
While the president would like Americans to afford him the benefit of the doubt, Trump's business history and questionable relationship with the truth make such an approach naive at best and foolish at worst.