When President-elect Donald Trump told 60 Minutes earlier this week that he was “not going to take” the salary provided to the President of the United States by the government—reiterating a statement he made toward the beginning of his campaign—the move might have seemed to come with strong precedent for a chief executive who does not want for cash. After all, in the very first ever Inaugural Address, delivered by George Washington in 1789, Washington said pretty much the same thing. When he had served as Commander-in-Chief of the revolutionary Continental Army, he had believed that he was honor-bound to refuse compensation, and he felt the same way about serving as President.
“I must decline as inapplicable to myself, any share in the personal emoluments, which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the Executive Department;” he said, “and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the Station in which I am placed, may, during my continuance in it, be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.”
Washington, however, didn’t end up having much of a say in the matter.
As the records of Congressional proceedings of 1789 show, the topic came up for intense discussion among legislators. It was Virginia’s John Page who made the point that although Washington “in his patriotic ardor, his love for his country” had said he was willing to forego payment, “the constitution requires that he shall receive a compensation, and it is our duty to provide it.” (That requirement is part of Article II of the U.S. Constitution.) As Page pointed out, setting the precedent that it was patriotic to skip a step that was otherwise required by the Constitution would be a mistake: the rest of the men who made up the government needed to be able to accept their salaries without shame, and failing to provide for that payment might put politicians into debt to wealthy friends in order to avoid accepting the public funds that were rightfully theirs.
Congress decided that the President would be paid $25,000 a year—roughly equivalent to $644,000 in today’s dollars. (The President is now paid $400,000 annually.)
As constitutional scholar David P. Currie explained in his analysis of the period, the constitutional stipulation of a salary for the President was “not designed for the President’s benefit.” Making sure that the President was well-paid was the Founding Fathers’ way of ensuring that a less-than-rich person could run without opening himself up to bribery and corruption. The President, Congress decided back in 1789, did not get to decide that he would not have a salary.
Should President-elect Trump wish not to be compensated for his time in the Oval Office, however, there does remain another option—namely, charity, something the President-elect has not always had a positive relationship with. President Kennedy donated his all of his government salary to a handful of causes, as did Herbert Hoover.