What you heard
A lot of people are in favor of the impeachment of President Trump under the Emoluments Clauses.
What it is
A lot of people include 40% of Americans as per a poll by PPP (Public Policy Polling, which has a pretty good rep as far as polling firms go); 600k+ who have signed a petition on impeachdonaldtrumpnow.org (yes, that’s a thing); and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI; big ups to my hometown Rep!).
The process of impeachment just means that the legislative body – in our case, Congress – charges a high-ranking official with a crime and then starts a hearing. If an official is found guilty and impeached, the legislature still has to vote to remove the official from office. Impeachment is a pretty big deal, since it overturns the will of the people (or in Donald Trump’s case, the will of 47% of the people); it’s usually only a charge leveled for very serious abuses of the office. It’s most famously known for its involvement in Bill Clinton’s infidelity issues (perjury related to his testimony in the Paula Jones case and abuse of power related to, you know, sleeping with an intern; he was acquitted of both charges) and its non-involvement in Nixon’s Watergate scandal (the disgraced President resigned before proceedings could take place).
The Emoluments Clauses, unlike impeachment, have not enjoyed any significant time in the spotlight before now. While I’m sure you’re very interested in the extended legalese of the two, here’s the brief summary: a President can’t profit privately from being President except for collecting his salary from the US Government. The clauses are pretty similar: the Foreign Emoluments Clause says a President can’t take gifts or fees or whatever (basically bribes) from – you guessed it – a foreign government; the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits a President from receiving “any other Emolument from the United States” besides the aforementioned salary.
What it means
It means that, although Trump promised repeatedly throughout his candidacy to divest himself of his business interests, he hasn’t. So, in being President, he, his companies, and his family are directly profiting from the US Government. It also means that foreign governments, by choosing to stay at a Trump-owned property, are effectively bribing the President to be friendly to their interests. Unlike the advent of semi-automatic weapons that require reasonable gun control, the Founding Fathers totally saw this one coming.
Most Presidents, when accepting the honor of, you know, being President, put country before business interests and put all their ownership/whatever into a truly blind trust. Poor Jimmy Carter inherited a ton of the post-Vietnam crises AND had to give up his peanut farm. Trump, however, is keeping his ownership stake in the Trump Organization but “resigning from management” (sure, buddy). He also put his businesses into a trust run by one of his sons and some other Trump Org staffers… a trust of which he is the main beneficiary.
What could happen
Since no other President before Trump has been this much of a Constitution-flouting you-know-what, there’s not a ton of precedent for adjudication around the Emoluments Clauses. The most recent question surrounding the Emoluments Clause came when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and its accompanying $1.4 million. Like any other person interested in being President for reasons other than profit, he sought the legal advice of the Department of Justice. Although the DOJ ruled that since the money came from a private organization (not a foreign government), Obama could keep it, he did the right thing and donated the money to charity anyways.
Trump’s team has made it pretty clear, however, that they’re not interested in the slightest in following the law, and will instead fight tooth and nail to say “eh this doesn’t really apply to him because x, y, and z”. So, don’t expect Trump to start doing anything to preserve the dignity of the office he holds (not that you were holding your breath anyways).
It’s also unlikely that any private charges can be filed that claim Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clauses; most legal scholars feel as though it’s a matter that really can only be resolved by Congress and the impeachment process. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen that this Republican Congress is pretty interested in “having power” and not so much into “governing the nation”. So while it’s possible that the legislative body could do the job assigned to it by the Constitution, actually uphold the law, and begin impeachment proceedings, you probably shouldn’t hold your breath on that one either (again, not like you were anyways though, am I right?).