The District’s attorney general’s office released a statement after a favorable ruling on Wednesday in its case against the president under the emoluments clause: “In allowing the suit to move forward, today’s ruling holds that the President is subject to both the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution and that the term ’emolument’ in both Clauses extends to any profit, gain, or advantage, of more than de minimis value, received by President Trump, directly or indirectly, from foreign, the federal, or domestic governments.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine declared, “The Constitution is clear: the president can’t accept money or other benefits from foreign or domestic governments. Specifically, the Court agreed with our position that President Trump cannot accept profits from private transactions, including those involving services given at fair market value, like those we allege are occurring at the Trump International Hotel here in the District.” He continued, “We sued because this corruption is taking place in our backyard, and because 325 million Americans shouldn’t have to wonder if the president is putting his personal financial interests ahead of the national interest. Our team is working hard to stop President Trump from unlawfully profiting from the presidency.” He promised to “vigorously pursue our case.”
A separate action brought by about 200 Democrats in Congress is not directly impacted, but it surely gives encouragement to the plaintiffs in that case. In a written statement the two lawmakers who have been the driving force behind the suit, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) put out a statement. “The courts have now firmly rejected President Trump’s ludicrous argument that the payments his business receives from foreign leaders are not, in fact, payments from foreign leaders covered by the Foreign Emoluments Clause. As we have argued in our own case, the plain text of the Constitution could not be clearer: the President may not accept any benefit from a foreign government without first obtaining the affirmative consent of Congress.” They argue that the decision on Wednesday while limited to properties in the District and Maryland, their suit is not. (“While the D.C. hotel is one of the most visible means by which President Trump is violating the Constitution’s bedrock anti-corruption provisions, his violations run much further afield. That is why we are working to hold this President accountable for every foreign emolument President Trump is accepting, not only the ones he’s accepting at his D.C. hotel.”)
There was an extra dollop of good news for Maryland and the District in the decision Wednesday, concerning the domestic emoluments clause, which bars the president during his term from taking — aside from his salary — “any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” Near the end of the opinion, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte found with regard to the Trump Hotel in Washington that the plain terms of the lease state, “No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” The court recounted that when Trump first took office, the then-deputy commissioner/acting commissioner of the General Services Administration found that the president “would be in violation of the Lease unless he fully divested himself of all financial interests in it.” Trump then canned the acting administrator and installed his own GSA head. “Plaintiffs allege that several weeks later, on March 16, 2017, less than two months into his term, the President released a proposed budget for 2018 that increased the GSA’s funding, while cutting back on other the funding of other agencies. ” And lo and behold, “the GSA issued a letter determining that the President and the Hotel were not in violation of the Lease.” The court finds that a sufficient emoluments claim is presented based on the allegation that “the GSA’s abrupt about-face position was and is in direct contradiction of the plain terms of the Lease and that, by determining that the Hotel was and is in compliance with the Lease, the Federal Government bestowed upon the President an emolument in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.” Uh-oh.
Jed Shugerman from Fordham Law School explains, “Even if a trial might not factually establish a corrupt deal by Trump, this ruling strongly suggests that a trial would lead to shutting down the Trump International Hotel as an unconstitutional violation and would force Trump to divest entirely. If there is a motion for summary judgment, the court already might have sufficient evidence to shut down the hotel.” He adds that D.C. and Maryland “would still be able to investigate the impermissible emoluments that Trump has already accepted.”
In short, the District and Maryland have alleged in convincing fashion a foreign emoluments claim and a domestic emoluments claim, the latter asserting that the GSA got roped into a scheme to let the president illegitimately keep his hotel under a lease that plainly did not allow it. That’s a gift, in essence (a lucrative one) — a domestic emolument that can be challenged in court. It’s rank corruption, by any definition — the sort of self-dealing and chicanery that’s precisely what the emoluments clause is designed to prohibit and what we have found to be endemic whether we are talking about using the presidency to make money from Mar-a-Lago or his Panamanian operation. If the District prevails, the most glaring symbol of Trump’s corruption could be stripped from his hands — unless, of course, he wants to keep the lease and leave the Oval Office.