The subpoenas seek details on some of the most closely held secrets of Trump’s presidency: Which foreign governments have paid the Trump Organization money? How much? And for what?
All of the documents — among them marketing materials targeted to foreign embassies, credit card receipts and restaurant reservation logs — relate to Trump’s D.C. hotel, which is at the center of the case because of events foreign governments have held there and the federal lease that allows the business to operate.
The lawsuit is based on the little-used emoluments clauses in the Constitution, which bar presidents from taking improper payments from foreign governments or individual states. Trump has argued that he is not in violation, saying that the Constitution intended to ban bribes, not regular business transactions. The Trump Organization also donates profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
The Justice Department, which is defending Trump in the case, declined to comment.
Maryland’s Brian E. Frosh (D) and the District’s Karl A. Racine (D) are seeking documents related to the president’s company, including the trust that holds his personal assets. They also are trying to view documents from a slew of competing Washington hotels and restaurants. Their goal is to show that Trump’s property is unfairly siphoning business from competitors, the offices of the two attorneys general announced Tuesday.
Also receiving subpoenas are a number of federal agencies that may have some information about Trump’s hotel, which operates in the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.
At the top of the list is the General Services Administration, which leases the property to Trump’s company. In the subpoena to the agency, the attorneys general ask for documents related to the hotel’s lease as well as financial records.
Other agencies receiving subpoenas are the Commerce Department, the Defense Department and the Agriculture Department, all of which have reportedly spent money at the hotel, and the Treasury Department, to which the Trump Organization donated profits from foreign governments earlier this year.
Specifically, the attorneys general ask for credit card and billing receipts for any spending by the federal agencies at the hotel and the hotel’s steakhouse, BLT Prime.
The state of Maine is also receiving a subpoena because of a visit Gov. Paul LePage (R) made to the hotel in early 2017.
The agencies and entities have until Jan. 3 to respond to the subpoenas.
Frosh said in an interview that he expects the subpoenas will yield more detailed information about payments the president’s businesses have received from foreign governments, such as India, China and Saudi Arabia.
“This is the information we believe will prove our case,” Frosh said Tuesday after the subpoenas were issued. “There’s not much doubt that Donald J. Trump has been receiving emoluments prohibited by the Constitution.”
But Frosh said he expects the Justice Department to resist the subpoenas to try to stop the attorneys general from getting the information or to “keep it out of the public eye. They will do everything they can to avoid allowing us to get this information.”
The Trump Organization reiterated the contributions it makes to the Treasury.
“On February 22, 2018, The Trump Organization voluntarily donated to the US Treasury all profits identified as being from foreign government patronage at our hotels and similar businesses. We intend to make a similar contribution in 2019,” the statement said.
Since Trump won the 2016 election, his hotel in Washington has hosted events put on by the embassies of Kuwait, Bahrain and the Philippines — all U.S. allies. The Saudi government spent at least $270,000 to reserve hotel rooms and banquet rooms at the D.C. hotel, according to foreign-lobbying records.
Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump White House has provided any comprehensive accounting of which foreign governments have paid money to the president’s businesses — and, by extension, to the president, who still owns them. Nor have they said what these countries paid for, which might address concerns that they might be overpaying for services to curry favor with Trump.
Now, after nearly two years of litigation, the attorneys general have filed formal requests for this data. Their argument: The Constitution’s emoluments clause was designed to prevent the public from being left to wonder if the president had unseen business relationships with foreign powers.
As part of their case, Racine and Frosh must show that venues similar to Trump’s hotel, such as the convention center, lost business because of competition from the Trump hotel.
The subpoenaed documents could lead to depositions with top Trump Organization officials.
While the plaintiffs are seeking tax records related to the president’s business, they did not request the president’s personal tax returns.
It is unclear how much of the information — even if it is entered into the court record — may be released to the public. Many of the documents being sought by the plaintiffs are held by third-party hotel operators. Attorneys for Trump have also signaled that they plan to try to block the subpoenas by continuing to fight in court.
Justice Department attorneys have sought unsuccessfully so far to delay the case and prevent or at least put off discovery, a process in which attorneys can seek documents and interviews in the case. The department again asked for a stay Friday, in hopes that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit would intervene.
U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte has limited discovery to information related to the president’s District hotel.
The president, his attorneys say, should not be burdened with negotiations over documents and records if the complaint against him could ultimately be dismissed.
“The President, in turn, will be drawn into the inevitable disputes that will arise as discovery progresses,” wrote Trump’s lawyer William S. Consovoy. “The President will suffer the very burdens from which absolute immunity is supposed to shield him.”
A second emoluments case, brought by 198 congressional Democrats, could open the president’s company to discovery beyond the D.C. hotel. A district judge in Washington has so far allowed that case to proceed.
Trump resigned from his business when he entered the White House but still owns it and can benefit from it financially. His sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump now run the company.
This is the second civil case in which Trump’s business is now subject to discovery, after Trump agreed to produce portions of his calendar from 2007 and 2008 in a defamation lawsuit brought by former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos.