A federal judge Monday dismissed a civil suit brought against President Trump by the owners of a D.C. wine bar, saying the plaintiffs failed to show that the president had engaged in unfair competition by profiting off his luxury D.C. hotel.
The owners of Cork Wine Bar had argued that Trump was improperly leveraging his presidency to attract customers — who might otherwise patronize their Logan Circle establishment — to his downtown Trump International Hotel, which he still owns but does not run.
District Judge Richard J. Leon disagreed, writing that while the plaintiffs might consider the business advantages Trump enjoys by way of his fame and presidency “unseemly, if not unethical,” those advantages did not constitute a violation of the city’s anti-competition law.
Had he sided with Cork’s owners, Leon wrote, “I would be foreclosing all manner of prominent people — from pop singers to celebrity chefs to professional athletes — from taking equity in the companies they promote. Indeed, I would be reading the ‘unfair’ right out of ‘unfair competition.’ This I cannot do!”
The president’s son Eric Trump, who runs the Trump Organization, issued a statement Monday applauding the decision.
“This ruling is a significant victory,” he said. “This case was nothing more than a politically motivated attack. I am very appreciative that the court ruled in our favor and dismissed this frivolous nonsense.”
The suit attracted pro bono support from a team of mostly left-leaning attorneys, including Alan B. Morrison, dean of public interest law at George Washington University.
Cork’s owners, the husband-and-wife team of Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross, are active in liberal political causes. Pitts is a former campaign director for the Service Employees International Union.
Pitts vowed via Twitter to appeal the ruling. “Judge Leon’s decision was that ‘Unfair Competition’ is not the proper vehicle to address Trump’s abusive of power, and we respectfully disagree and will be making our arguments through the appellate process,” he wrote.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Scott H. Rome of the Veritas Law Firm, said in an email that he and his clients were “disappointed that Judge Leon viewed a President profiting off of his public office as legitimate business conduct.”
The Cork case avoided the question of whether Trump’s business improperly accepts gifts or payments — called emoluments — as defined by the Constitution, as plaintiffs in two other federal cases allege. In those cases, Justice Department attorneys have argued that the president has not accepted any emoluments and that the cases should be dismissed.
In his decision in the wine bar case, Leon allowed that the Trump hotel “may even have cost Cork some money” by attracting groups to its BLT Prime restaurant downtown, 1½ miles from Cork. After filing the suit, Pitts and Gross merged their wine bar with a market they owned down the street.
In court filings, the plaintiffs attempted to make an issue of Trump’s lease with the federal government for the federally owned Old Post Office building, where his D.C. hotel operates. Leon wrote that there was no need to resolve that issue in this case.