WASHINGTON – Lawyers representing nearly 200 Democrats in Congress plan to argue in federal court Thursday that President Donald Trump is violating the Constitution by accepting foreign state favors without first seeking congressional approval.
The case argues that the president has received foreign government favors, such as Chinese government trademarks for his companies, payments for hotel room stays and event space rentals by representatives of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and proceeds from Chinese or Emirati-linked government purchases of office space in Trump Tower.
Ethics experts say the constitutional emoluments clause was created by the Founding Fathers to ensure that government officials act with the interests of the American public in mind instead of their own pocketbooks. Since then, it has been applied to the lowest of government officials up to the president without a court challenge.
“This argument on Thursday will essentially put to the test the proposition that no one is above the law, not even the president,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who is leading the effort. “He’s thumbed his nose at the plain text and in doing so he’s thumbed his nose at the American people.”
Unlike prior presidents, Trump chose not to divest from his assets and he remains the owner of the Trump Organization, a sprawling business empire with 550 entities in more than 20 countries that include branded hotels, golf courses, licensing deals and other interests. His Washington, D.C., hotel just steps from the White House has become a magnet for foreign governments, including groups tied to Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
The District of Columbia case is one of three that argues the president is violating the emoluments clause, which bans accepting benefits from foreign governments unless a majority of both houses of Congress consent.
But Thursday’s case is different in that the plaintiffs in the suit – members of Congress – are mentioned in the clause itself, and they believe that Congress not only has a right but is required, as part of their jobs, to weigh in on potential emoluments such as a $6.5 million condo purchase by the Qatari government or a Chinese-government owned company’s investment in a project that will include a Trump-branded hotel and golf course in Indonesia.
“These members of Congress are injured every time the president accepts a foreign government benefit, whether that benefit is a trademark from China or proceeds from a government buying space in a Trump property,” said Brianne Gorod, the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center’s chief counsel who will argue the plaintiffs’ case Thursday.
Separate emoluments cases in Maryland and New York are based on a claim of competitive standing, arguing that the president’s businesses are being used by lobbyists, government officials and political groups to curry favor with Trump, and thus have an unfair advantage over other businesses. The New York case was dismissed and is being appealed. Justice Department lawyers have argued that such business activity, including hotel room stays, isn’t an emolument.
Thursday’s arguments before U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan will be solely focused on whether the lawmakers have standing to sue the president by showing they’ve suffered harm from the alleged violation of the clause.
In papers supporting the plaintiffs’ suit, nearly two dozen former national security officials, including Madeleine Albright and Chuck Hagel, said that “allowing private business deals with foreign governments to go undisclosed, unapproved, and unmonitored creates substantial danger that national security or foreign policy decisions (could) be motivated by something other than the public’s interest.”
The Justice Department, which has filed for dismissal of the case, declined to comment. Its lawyers argued in court papers that the 198 Democrats suing the president are not being injured by him at all but by their colleagues in Congress, who have refused to take up the emoluments issue.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
“The enforcement of the emoluments clause is the only way we can preserve our ability to do our job,” Blumenthal said. “If Congress does not have standing, no one does.”
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