RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A group of lawyers is suing President Trump, and the suit revolves around this old Latin word - emoluments. The lawyers claim Trump is in violation of the so-called Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast looked into why the clause is there.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: The clause says U.S. officials shouldn't accept gifts or titles or emoluments from foreign governments. Emoluments means profits. With this clause, the authors of the Constitution hoped to limit foreign influence on their young country. There's a story about Benjamin Franklin. It's exactly what worried them. In October of 1776, a couple months after the colonies declare independence, Franklin boards a ship bound for France. It's a terrible trip, awful weather, bad food. It was fictionalized in a musical from the 1960s called "Ben Franklin In Paris," which, naturally, we have to play a little of.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SAIL THE SEAS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, what's that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's French cooking smoke.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) France, this is.
KING: Franklin is 70, an inventor, an entrepreneur, and now he's going to be an ambassador. He is a hit, says Zephyr Teachout.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Franklin had this fantastic - he loved France.
KING: She teaches law at Fordham. She's one of the lawyers suing President Trump. And she wrote a book about corruption and the Constitution that starts with Franklin. In France, Franklin plays up the self-made American frontiersman image. He wears a plain brown suit and instead of a powdered wig, he wears a fur hat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I INVENTED MYSELF")
ROBERT PRESTON: (As Benjamin Franklin, singing) I made the skin it's wrapped in from the hide of a grizzly bear. I invented myself out of thin, blue air.
KING: He spends nine years in France. At the time, there's a custom. When an ambassador returns home, you give him a present. King Louis XVI gives Franklin an extravagant gift - a tiny portrait of the king set in 408 diamonds.
TEACHOUT: The diamonds of the highest water, you know, these sort of incredibly beautiful diamonds.
KING: Franklin takes the gift home. And Zephyr says people start whispering. Is it right for him to keep it or will the gift corrupt him? The Founding Fathers were under a lot of pressure. They were trying to build a country from scratch, a virtuous and decent and democratic country. In a world full of monarchies, they had very few models to base their government and laws on. But they did have the Roman Republic. Carl Richard is author of the book "Greeks And Romans Bearing Gifts."
CARL RICHARD: The founders were really obsessed with the late Roman Republic.
KING: So they copy Rome. They call the Senate the Senate, like Rome. They pick the eagle as the national bird, like Rome. When they get in fights, they write snippy letters back and forth, and the ultimate dig is to call a guy a Caesar. Despite their admiration, the founders know the Roman Republic collapsed.
RICHARD: And so they were sort of doing autopsies on ancient Roman Republic to see, what is it - what killed, you know, this model of - that we're basing things on?
KING: Corruption. That's what the founders thought. Roman society got corrupt. Leaders looked to enrich themselves, civic virtue decayed, the Republic fell apart. A collapse stemming from corruption is what the framers wanted to prevent when they added this clause. But President Trump's lawyers have said the profits from his businesses aren't emoluments. After all, he is a global businessman, and this isn't Rome.
Noel King, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.