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Second Trump Term Could Revive Old Ethics Questions

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Terrace View Event Center in Sioux Center, Iowa, Jan. 5, 2024.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Terrace View Event Center in Sioux Center, Iowa, Jan. 5, 2024.

A recent report issued by Democratic members of Congress, revealing that former President Donald Trump’s businesses took in at least $7.8 million in revenues from foreign governments during his presidency, signals that many of the same controversies that marked Trump’s first term could be revived if he wins reelection in November.

The findings have led to calls from congressional Democrats to pass new laws to prevent a sitting president from profiting from the position.

At the same time, legal experts said that lawsuits alleging Trump illegally benefited during his time in office will likely be revived if he wins reelection and again declines to sever his connection to his business empire.

Emoluments clause questions

When he took office in 2017, Trump made the controversial decision not to divest himself of his considerable business holdings, a step presidents have customarily taken in the past. This had previously been done in order to avoid the possibility that entities with business before the U.S. government might seek to influence decisions by patronizing the president’s companies.

The U.S. Constitution specifically bars government officials, including the president, from accepting benefits, known as “emoluments,” from foreign governments or domestic sources.

While the report found that at least 21 countries spent money at Trump properties during the first two years of his presidency, the dominant presence in the report is China. The investigation revealed that entities controlled by the Chinese government spent more than $5.5 million at several Trump properties between 2017 and 2018. Other countries that spent large sums of money at Trump’s properties during that time include Saudi Arabia ($615,422), Qatar ($465,744) and Kuwait ($303,372).

The report, several years in the making, relies on a relatively restricted amount of information about the business dealings of the Trump Organization. Congressional investigators received about two years’ worth of records covering some of the time Trump was in office and related to just 20 Trump Organization subsidiaries. The former president held office for four years, and the Trump Organization has more than 500 total subsidiaries.

Profits to Treasury

Trump and his family members have long maintained that any profits his companies earned from dealings with foreign governments during his time in office were voluntarily donated to the U.S. Treasury.

Eric Trump, the former president’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, used the social media platform X to criticize the news media’s coverage of the story, insisting that the company had not retained the profits earned on the $7.8 million in revenue it received from foreign governments.

“What a joke!” he wrote. “All foreign government profits, for stays at our hotels and other properties while my father was in office, were [voluntarily] donated to the United States Treasury.”

Critics say it is virtually impossible to independently verify the Trumps’ claim that all profits derived from foreign governments were donated to the Treasury.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have spent much of the last two years pursuing an investigation into President Joe Biden and his family, in search of evidence that Biden illicitly profited from business dealings by his brother and son while in office. The investigation has so far produced no clear evidence of wrongdoing by the current president, but the former president’s allies nevertheless pointed to the investigation while defending Trump.

“It’s beyond parody that Democrats continue their obsession with former President Trump,” James Comer, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, said. “Former President Trump has legitimate businesses but the Bidens do not.” He went on to accuse “the Bidens and their associates” of profiting from the current president’s official position.

New ethical territory

Trump’s decision not to separate himself from his businesses while serving as president created unprecedented ethical questions, which were never fully resolved during his time in office. Among other things, his administration regularly held official events at Trump-owned properties including a luxury hotel just blocks from the White House in Washington and the president’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago.

“Ethics issues related to then-President Trump occurred on a daily basis,” Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, told VOA.

“His decision to retain financial ties to his businesses, the promotion of the D.C. hotel, and his weekly trips to Mar-a-Lago and other owned properties was unprecedented, and now we see that they were financially rewarding,” Amey said. “Despite ethics laws and the emoluments provision in the Constitution, Trump received very little pushback, which raises genuine questions about him placing personal and private gain above the public interest.”

Richard W. Painter, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, who also served as the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, agreed that Trump’s time in the White House sent the nation into uncharted legal territory.

“We have never before seen anything like this, with any president, in our history,” he told VOA.

Painter was one of a number of attorneys who filed lawsuits seeking to hold the former president accountable for what they saw as violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. While most of those lawsuits were dismissed as moot after the former president left office in 2021, Painter said they would likely make a reappearance in a second Trump term.

“If you don't want to work for the United States government, you can do business with foreign governments,” he said. “If you do work for the United States government, you're not doing business with foreign governments. It's really quite simple.”

He added, “If he's reelected, we would seek to reinstate all of those lawsuits next January.”

Call for new laws

In a forward to the report, Representative Jamie Raskin, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, said Congress must act to make it clear that a sitting president cannot own a company that does business with foreign governments.

“We will develop a package of proposed legislative reforms to ensure that all occupants of the Oval Office abide by the Constitution's unequivocal language commanding loyalty to the interests of the American people,” Raskin wrote.