During the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency, broadcast evening news shows and Sunday political talk shows devoted a total of just over 10 minutes to discussing the allegation that Trump is violating the U.S. Constitution by receiving foreign government payments. The scant reporting that did address this issue failed to mention that such conduct is an impeachable offense.
Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, known as the Emoluments Clause, creates a broad prohibition on federal officeholders, including the president, receiving payments from foreign governments without the consent of Congress. It reads: “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
The provision is much broader than a ban on receiving bribes. According to legal experts, even “fair market value transactions that result in any economic profit or benefit” count as an emolument, because the Founding Fathers wanted a “prophylactic” rule aimed at preventing even the appearance of corruption.
A president’s violation of the clause is an impeachable offense.
According to legal experts, Trump’s retention of an ownership interest in the Trump Organization as president means that he has been violating the Constitution since the moment he took the oath of office. Indeed, just two days after the inauguration, the watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit in federal court “to stop President Trump from violating the Constitution.” A press release about the suit notes that the president “is now getting cash and favors from foreign governments, through guests and events at his hotels, leases in his buildings, and valuable real estate deals abroad.” (Other presidents have avoided violating the clause by placing their assets into an independently controlled blind trust, something Trump has refused to do.)
In what should serve as a prompt for investigative journalists, the exact nature of the emoluments Trump has received is unclear in many instances due to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. As Emoluments Clause expert Zephyr Teachout, an associate law professor who is a lawyer on CREW’s lawsuit, explained in The Washington Post, while some emoluments Trump is receiving are known -- including rent paid by the Qatari state airline at a Trump property, licensing fees paid by several foreign countries for rights to the TV show The Apprentice, and construction permits granted by the Indian government -- the full extent of his violations is unknown because “Trump hasn’t disclosed any information about his finances.”
In spite of Trump’s secretive business dealings, two concrete new violations emerged during the first month of his presidency.
According to a February 9 report from Politico, “A lobbying firm working for Saudi Arabia paid for a room at Donald Trump’s Washington hotel after Inauguration Day, marking the first publicly known payment on behalf of a foreign government to a Trump property since he became president.” The article notes that the payment “raises questions about whether it represents a violation of the foreign emoluments clause.”
Politico quoted Obama ethics attorney Norm Eisen, who described the payment as part of a “systemic problem,” and constitutional law expert Laurence Tribe, who said, “This example is bound to be one of a vast stream of instances.” Both Tribe and Eisen are lawyers on CREW’s lawsuit.
Then The Associated Press reported on February 14 that Trump was set to score an “unlikely” legal win in China by way of a “trademark for building construction services” following “a decade of grinding battle in China's courts.” According to the report, the legal victory “could signal a shift in fortune for the U.S. president's intellectual property in China. At stake are 49 pending trademark applications -- all made during his campaign -- and 77 marks already registered in his name, most of which will come up for renewal during his term.” (China announced the trademark two days after AP’s article.)
As the AP report aptly noted, “Trump's foreign trademarks have raised red flags with ethics lawyers across the political spectrum who say they present grave conflicts of interest and may violate the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution.” (Indeed, a post at the libertarian Volokh Conspiracy blog concluded that the trademark grant qualifies as an emolument received by Trump.)
The nation’s leading news programs have insufficiently covered a story about a president openly taking actions that not only violate the Constitution but also are grounds for impeachment.
CBS Evening News, ABC World News Tonight, and NBC Nightly News have each devoted a single segment to foreign payments to Trump.
A January 20 CBS Evening News segment didn’t mention the Emoluments Clause explicitly, but it included an interview with George Washington University law school professor Steven Schooner, who explained how Trump can profit from foreign governments via the Trump Organization.
ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News each devoted brief segments on January 23 to CREW’s lawsuit.
In total, the issue was covered for just over seven minutes on broadcast nightly news between January 20 and February 20. None of the segments mentioned violating the Emoluments Clause is an impeachable offense:
Sunday political talk shows provided even less coverage. During the January 22 broadcast of ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos directly asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) about Trump and the Emoluments Clause. During the January 29 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked White House chief of staff Reince Priebus why Muslim-majority countries with business ties to Trump were left out of Trump’s travel ban, although the Emoluments Clause was never directly cited. CBS’ Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, and CNN’s State of the Union all failed to discuss the issue.
Sunday show coverage of the issue totaled just under four minutes, with no discussion of how the offense is grounds for impeachment:
Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts for ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, and CNN for “emoluments,” “emolument,” “Trump Organization,” “Trump Hotel,” Trump w/10 “trump international hotel,” Trump w/10 impeach, Trump w/10 constitution, Trump w/10 “conflict of interest,” Trump w/10 conflicted, Trump w/10 payment, Trump w/10 “foreign payment,” and Trump w/10 divest. We identified segments that mentioned foreign payments to Trump in the context of conflict-of-interest questions and/or the Emoluments Clause directly, and then counted those segments for time in iQ media.
Graphics by Sarah Wasko.