In an interview that aired earlier this week, 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl asked President-elect Donald Trump if he would take the office’s $400,000 salary. “Well, I’ve never commented on this, but the answer is no,” Trump said, repeating precisely the position he’d articulated during the campaign. “I think I have to by law take $1, so I’ll take $1 a year.”
In his first inaugural address, George Washington declared that he was not terribly interested in “any share in the personal emoluments” of the presidency. But though delivering inaugural addresses is not required by the Constitution, getting paid to be president apparently is. Congress refused his offer, voting him a $25,000 salary; Washington accepted it.
“The constitutional intent is to assure the financial independence of the President so that he would not be impoverished and not be susceptible to corruption which might jeopardize the public interest,” one former representative offered at a 1999 congressional hearing on the presidential salary. In other words, an American should be able to be able to serve in the White House without going to the poorhouse--or being tempted to pursue his own financial interests at the expense of the public good. And so, despite the fact that George Washington was financially comfortable and the United States was not, the precedent was set.