Rule of Law

Blumenthal, et al. v. Trump

Holding President Trump accountable for his violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.

In Brief

The Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibits the President from accepting any benefits from foreign states unless he first obtains the consent of Congress. President Trump has never sought or received such consent.
The Founders adopted the Foreign Emoluments Clause because they believed America would be harmed if federal officeholders, including the President, made policy decisions based on their own self-interest rather than the national interest.
There is nothing members of Congress can do to redress this constitutional violation so long as the President is accepting foreign government benefits without first obtaining congressional consent. That’s why the courts must enforce the Constitution.

Case Summary

The Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution requires that all federal officials, including the President, seek and obtain the affirmative consent of Congress before accepting any benefits from foreign states. Our nation’s Founders concluded that this requirement was the only way to prevent undue foreign influence on American officials and to ensure that those officials act in the national interest, not their own financial self-interest. Because President Trump is accepting numerous financial benefits from foreign governments through his business empire without having first obtained the consent of Congress, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and approximately 200 other Members of Congress asking the federal courts to compel the President to comply with the Constitution.

Trump’s failure to comply with the Constitution matters. The Founders included the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the Constitution because they recognized that payments and gifts to U.S. officials by foreign governments could compromise the judgment of those officials and undermine their loyalty to the United States, thereby harming the American people. But as long as Congress were required to approve such benefits in advance, the risk of foreign corruption would be reduced.

In September 2018, the United States District Court of the District of Columbia ruled that the plaintiffs have standing to sue President Trump for violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause. The district court concluded that Trump’s alleged acceptance of foreign emoluments without congressional consent injures the plaintiffs in their capacities as legislators by denying them specific voting opportunities to which they are entitled by the Constitution—opportunities to cast binding votes either approving or rejecting specific foreign emoluments before the President accepts them. While President Trump argued that the case should be dismissed because Congress has political remedies available to stop him from accepting foreign emoluments, the district court disagreed, finding that these purported remedies are “clearly inadequate.”

In April 2019, the district court denied the remainder of the President’s motion to dismiss. The court concluded, among other things, that the President’s narrow definition of the term “emolument” was “unpersuasive and inconsistent,” and instead ruled that the text, structure, historical interpretation, and purpose of the Clause support a broad view of the term “emolument.” Accordingly, the court held that “the Amended complaint states a plausible clam against the President for violations of the Clause,” and that the plaintiffs’ case could therefore proceed.

The President then moved for permission to immediately appeal the district court’s orders and for a stay of discovery. In June 2019, the district court denied the President’s motion, ordering the discovery process to begin. Soon after, the plaintiffs issued subpoenas to numerous Trump-owned companies seeking records concerning their business dealings with foreign governments.

The next month, the President filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The D.C. Circuit denied the petition, ruling that the President “has not shown a clear and indisputable right to dismissal of the complaint in this case.” But the D.C. Circuit also remanded the case to the district court for reconsideration of the President’s motion for permission to immediately appeal and his motion for a stay. In August 2019, the district court granted both motions, and the D.C. Circuit subsequently accepted the appeal.

In February 2020, the D.C. Circuit ordered that the District Court’s September 2018 order on standing be reversed, the case be “remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint,” and the District Court’s April 30 opinion be vacated as moot.

Examples of Trump’s Unconstitutional Emoluments

President Trump has at no time sought or received the consent of Congress to accept any foreign emoluments, even though public reporting makes clear that he has already violated the Clause in at least three respects:

Foreign States Paying for Space in Trump-Owned Towers

  • The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which is owned by China, leases space in Manhattan’s Trump Tower. The bank’s lease is estimated to be “worth close to $2 million annually.” [Washington Post, July 5, 2018]
  • The governments of Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, and Thailand all pay for space in Manhattan’s Trump World Tower. During the first eight months of Trump’s presidency, more foreign governments sought permission to lease space in Trump World Tower than in the previous two years combined. [Reuters, May 2, 2019] [Mansion Global, May 4, 2018]

Foreign States Paying for Rooms and Events at Trump Hotels

  • The Saudi Arabian government paid approximately $270,000 for rooms and expenses at Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., between November 2016 and February 2017. [Politico, Feb. 9, 2017] [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2017]
  • The Embassy of Kuwait held its National Day Celebration at Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel in February 2017. The estimated price of the celebration was between $40,000 and $60,000. The next year, the embassy again paid for a celebration at the hotel. [Reuters, Feb. 27, 2017] [Washington Post, January 26, 2018]
  • The Malaysian Prime Minister and dozens of members of his diplomatic delegation stayed at President Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel in September 2017, with the Prime Minister reportedly traveling from the hotel in a motorcade straight to the White House for a meeting with the President. [Washington Post, September 12, 2017]

Foreign States Giving Intellectual Property Rights to Trump Companies

  • Since Trump became President, the Chinese government has approved 40 new trademarks to Trump and his companies. Circumstances suggest that these trademarks were approved or expedited as a result of Trump’s status as President of the United States; the director of a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy, for instance, “said he had never seen so many applications approved so expeditiously,” and the approvals closely followed Trump’s abrupt decision to honor the one-China policy, in contrast to his earlier statements. [Associated Press, Mar. 9, 2017]

In addition to the emoluments that have been publicly reported, there are almost certainly many more that are not yet known about — that, in fact, it is impossible to know about absent judicial process to compel Trump to provide information about his businesses and the benefits he has received from foreign states.

Case Timeline

More from Rule of Law

Rule of Law
August 10, 2020

OP-ED: What a 1924 case from Montana says about dismissing the Flynn prosecution

The Washington Post
As the full federal appeals court in D.C. considers whether to order dismissal of the...
By: Dayna Zolle
Rule of Law
August 7, 2020

Don McGahn can be subpoenaed by House Dems, federal appeals court rules

The Washington Times
The full federal appeals court in D.C. ruled Friday that House Democrats have the authority...
Rule of Law
August 7, 2020

RELEASE: McGahn Ruling: Victory for Congress’s Power to Investigate

WASHINGTON – On news that the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra
Rule of Law
July 30, 2020

#PurpleChairChat Episode 6: Supporting the Next Generation of Constitutional Progressives

CAC’s President Elizabeth Wydra, Doug Kendall Fellow Clare Riva, and our current interns discuss their...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, Clare Riva, Simon Chin, Bardia Faghihvaseghi, Adaeze Eze, Jackson Skeen
Rule of Law
July 22, 2020

Trump’s Portland crackdown is controversial. The man spearheading it might be doing so illegally

The Washington Post
In Wednesday’s Washington Post, Nick Miroff and Matt Zapotosky dig into the Trump administration’s highly controversial —...
By: Brianne J. Gorod, By Aaron Blake
Rule of Law
July 10, 2020

With wave of major rulings, Roberts and Supreme Court emerge as powerful counterweight to Trump and Congress

The Washington Post
“It speaks volumes about the current political moment that Chief Justice Roberts and the court...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, By Robert Barnes