Not So Fast, Mr. President

© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Tad Armstrong

Congratulations, Mr. President, but if you care about the rule of law, you’ll have to fork over the Nobel Peace Prize within 60 days of accepting it next week. Contrary to Mel Brooks’ pronouncement in “History of the World Part I,” it’s (not always) good to be the king. It’s impossible if you are an American President.

Article I of the Constitution states: “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 any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”

Clearly, the Presidency is both an office of “profit” and of “trust” and the prize package (including 1.4 million clams) is included in the terms “present” or “emolument.” Therefore, a sitting president cannot accept it from a “King, Prince or foreign State” without the consent of Congress.

While the Prize comes from the private Nobel Foundation, Alfred Nobel left instructions in his will that winners would be selected by a “committee of five” appointed by the Parliament of Norway. There is no question that the intent of Article I and a 1966 law passed by Congress is such that this prize is “from a foreign State.”

But, what does “consent of Congress” mean? It could be argued that there must be specific consent of Congress for this prize to be accepted, which Congress has not provided because, no doubt, most of its members don’t have a clue it is constitutionally required.

But in 1966, Congress passed a law dealing with the receipt and disposition of foreign gifts and decorations, including those that fall into the lap of a sitting president. That alone would bar the president from accepting the prize.

That law, now §7342 of the U.S. Code, provides that unless Congress provides specific consent to the President to accept the prize and changes the rules for its disposition, the prize must be accepted “on behalf of the United States of America” and the $1.4 million must be turned over to the Treasury.

Did I hear someone say: “Cheap shot! After all, the President graciously announced that all of the money would be donated to charity. He won fair and square. Let him experience the joy of giving.”

The framers included these Constitutional provisions to send a message to other nations that they need not offer bribes to our president in the hope of gaining political advantage, for we don’t allow our leaders to accept them. Would Norway expect Mr. Obama to embrace its global warming policy, for example? Come to think of it, that might be a very good reason for Congress to consider refusing the Prize.

Additionally, because the money is not the president’s to give away, he won’t be tempted to narrow his charitable giving to only those charities likely to reward him with future campaign contributions. Does ACORN come to mind?

So, Mr. President, you took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution “to the best of your ability.” You cannot give the prize money to charities of your choice. In fact, if you do not turn it over to the Treasury, the law allows Attorney General Holder to bring a civil suit against you for all of the prize money plus $5,000. I’m not holding my breath.

Kings get to keep their spoils or designate their disposition, but you are not king. Better fork it over. Your magnanimous decision to give it away is the only cheap shot on the table. As a lawyer, an oath taker and the president of the United States, you should know better.

To put all of this in extra-legal perspective, just prior to his death when Congress was considering awarding President Harry S Truman with the Medal of Honor, he said he was thankful, but would not accept an award meant for bravery in battle. He also turned down lucrative corporate positions offered to him after he left office. He said: “I knew they were not interested in hiring Harry Truman…they wanted to hire…the former president of the United States. I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and the dignity of the office of the presidency.”

Are there any such statesmen left?

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