In First of Many, ACLU FOIA Request Seeks Information About the New President’s Conflicts of Interests

During the Trump administration, our country faces an unprecedented constellation of threats to the regular oversight processes that keep the powers that be in check. Faced with attacks on journalists critical of the president as perpetrators of “fake news,” an era of one-party rule threatening healthy competition between the branches of government, the constant subversion of democratic and ethical norms, and more, the ACLU and the citizenry will unfortunately have many opportunities to provide a public check to keep our government honest.

Well, we just couldn’t wait: on Thursday, we filed our first Freedom of Information Act request of the Trump Era, seeking documents relating President Trump’s actual or potential conflicts of interest relating to his business and family connections.

Since the election, it has become clear that during the Trump administration the public’s relentless focus on government transparency will be critical to documenting and pushing back against government violations of civil liberties. While Trump has, both during the election campaign and since his Electoral College victory, threatened to violate the Constitution in numerous ways, the presidential transition brought to the fore a host of potential ethical and financial conflicts of interest that undermine the Constitution in a pervasive way: by casting doubt on the longstanding American value of the impartiality in government decisionmaking.

As ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said:

"Trump took the oath, but he didn't take the steps necessary to ensure that he and his family’s business interests comply with the Constitution and other federal statutes. Freedom of information requests are our democracy’s X-ray and they will be vitally important to expose and curb the abuses of a president who believes the rules don’t apply to him and his family."

The sheer number of potential ethical issues facing our new president is sobering. Bipartisan ethics experts have raised alarm bells about Trump’s many business interests across the globe. He’s reportedly in millions of dollars in debt to foreign countries or entities, including China. He faces mounds of civil lawsuits, with more on the way. His son-in-law will have a White House office, in potential violation of the nepotism laws.

Indeed, some have even argued that upon taking the oath of office, the new president is already violating the Constitution — in particular, the now-famous Emoluments Clause. As a bipartisan quartet of ethics experts and lawyers wrote this week:

"The emoluments clause forbids any 'Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]' from accepting any 'any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State' (unless Congress explicitly consents).

By 'emolument,' this provision means any benefit derived from dealing with a foreign government. It is well-settled that receipt of such emoluments is strictly prohibited for persons holding positions of trust with the U.S. government. A U.S. official need not also have an 'office' with a foreign government in order to receive an emolument from it.

The Framers included this provision in the Constitution to guarantee that private entanglements with foreign states would not blur the loyalties of federal officials, above all the president. Yet that lesson seems lost on Trump, whose continued significant ownership stake in the Trump Organization forges an unbreakable bond between Trump and a global empire that will benefit or suffer in innumerable ways from its dealings with foreign governments. Trump’s actions in office will thus be haunted by the specter (and perhaps reality) of divided interests."

That’s why we’re stepping in now, using FOIA — one of America’s most critical guarantors of government transparency and the central mechanism by which ordinary Americans can provide ongoing public checks and balances on elected officials in the political branches. We want to know how the Trump transition team and the government offices tasked with supervising ethics-related issues for the incoming administration have been thinking about and confronting these potential conflicts. In pursuit of that information, we’ve asked for a gamut of documents — legal opinions, policy advisories, communications, and more — that address them. And we aim to publish the responses so that the American public can do its job conducting broad-based democratic oversight of the new administration.

The many conflict-of-interest issues presented by Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency threaten to undermine the public’s confidence in government, the global community’s trust in our nation’s chief executive, and even potentially our national security. With this FOIA — surely the first of many to come during the next four years — we hope to facilitate the public’s indispensable role in checking the power of our public officials.

Because remember: While the president may ordinarily play the boss on television, now that he’s taken the oath of office, he works for us.

Add a comment (86)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

So here we folks ,if not now when ? The opposers to freedom keep pushing to see how they can go . Chances are , this will finally bring out the silent majority for their sleepy slumber .

Anonymous

I bet a nuclear blast couldn't bring them out. Never mind my stupid family who VOTED for him. I voted for Bush, I never in a million YEARS would vote for someone who BOASTED that "I could shoot someone in the head and still not lose voters." Really? You lost me forever when you said that.

Anonymous

I'm in my 40s. I have awoken and I've contacted my senators for the first time. I have donated to ACLU, Trevor Project, and Planned Parenthood. I will participate in my first political protest ever tomorrow.

Anonymous

All federal agencies have to enforce the regulations they have promugated and seek action on federal laws Trump and his appointees have violated. The ferderal agencies must take action without over thinking and committee delays fir action.

Anonymous

For those of us who have not studied (constitutional) law, can you briefly describe the potential implications IF the documents you requested should turn out to indicate that a violation of the Emoluments Clause, as outlined above, has in fact already happened? (Or, more generally, if it should happen at some point in the future?)

...what would happen, what might be next steps, what would be likely scenario? And who can actually trigger such steps?

Thx!

Anonymous

I'm pretty sure it would be grounds for impeachment. Though the Republican-controlled house of reps would have to initiate those proceedings, so there's a decent chance that nothing at all would happen

Anonymous

Although, as the other responder pointed out, there is a republican controlled house right now, if evidence of a crime came to light from these FOIA requests I think there is a good chance he would be impeached. There are several reasons why: The republicans don't like Trump anymore than most of the rest of us - impeaching him would put Pence (who they love) in charge. Further, if republicans failed to impeach Trump in the face of solid evidence of a crime they would pay a heavy political price, which they won't want to do for a guy they really don't like. Finally, if they did choose to protect him, hopefully enough Americans would be outraged enough that they would elect a majority of democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections, who would then impeach him.

Anonymous

thank you and blessings <3.

Anonymous

Thank you ACLU.

Anonymous

Anyone is able to send a letter to the four agencies named, without all the fee waiver and expedited processing language, and just ask those agencies for precisely the same records. Perhaps a couple of additional requests may add additional gravitas to the matter.

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News