Congressional Democrats began issuing dozens of subpoenas Monday for financial records and other documents from President Trump’s private entities as part of an ongoing lawsuit alleging that his businesses violate the Constitution’s ban on gifts or payments from foreign governments.
Brought by more than 200 Democrats in Congress, the “emoluments” lawsuit is one of several legal battles over access to the inner workings of Trump’s businesses and, more broadly, the balance of power between lawmakers and the president.
“We are seeking a targeted set of documents to obtain the information that we need to ensure that the President can no longer shirk his constitutional responsibility,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement.
The 37 subpoenas target information from a wide array of Trump’s businesses, including Trump Tower, his hotels in New York and Washington, and his Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida, according to the Constitutional Accountability Center, the legal group representing the Democrats in the case.
The plaintiffs also are seeking information about trademarks granted to Trump’s companies by foreign governments since he entered office and any pending applications for foreign trademarks. Additional subpoenas seek information on tax returns from the president’s companies and the trust where he keeps his businesses while in office.
The Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment regarding the subpoenas.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in late June rejected Trump’s request to stop the lawsuit and ordered the two parties to begin the process of requesting records and other information as part of a three-month discovery period ending Sept. 27.
In its court filing Monday, the Trump administration officially asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to issue an order to dismiss the case or at least to put the lawsuit and subpoenas on hold pending review. Justice Department lawyers said Sullivan had treated the case “as a run-of-the-mill commercial dispute” and “ignored the unique separation-of-powers concerns posed by discovery in a case against the President in his official capacity.”
In a separate emoluments case brought by the attorneys general of the District and Maryland, Justice Department lawyers have succeeded in temporarily blocking subpoenas for financial records and other documents related to Trump’s D.C. hotel.
The congressional emoluments case, led by Blumenthal and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) extends beyond the hotel and provides a potential new avenue for investigators to gain access to a broader array of Trump’s finances.
Unlike past presidents, Trump has retained ownership of his private businesses and refused to release his tax returns.
The Constitution’s emoluments provision — barring payments or gifts from foreign governments without prior approval from Congress — was designed to prevent undue influence over the nation’s leaders. Attorneys for the lawmakers say Trump is violating the ban when his businesses accept payments and other benefits from foreign governments.
Democrats are seeking information related to not only the president’s hotels but office buildings, trademarks and the trust in which Trump is storing his business interests while in office.
Three properties — the two hotels and Mar-a-Lago — have hosted foreign governments or large foreign delegations since Trump entered office. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has booked blocks of rooms at both hotels, and the D.C. hotel has hosted the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain and Malaysia, among others.
Trump Organization officials say that to avoid benefiting from any impropriety, they do not market the hotels to foreign governments and that when embassies or delegations book space, the company donates the profits to the U.S. Treasury.
For example, after an Iraqi sheikh urging the United States to overthrow Iran’s government stayed 26 nights at the D.C. hotel, the company says it donated the profits from his stay. In total, the company donated $191,538 at the end of last year and $151,470 for the previous year, although it did not break down those amounts.
There is less known about foreign governments’ involvement in the four office properties that are subject of the plaintiffs’ subpoenas.
Dating to before Trump’s presidency, foreign diplomats have leased space in Trump World Tower, near the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a state-owned Chinese bank, has leased space on the 20th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan since 2008. The bank’s lease is worth close to $2 million annually, according to industry estimates and a bank filing.
Trump owns a minority stake in two other office buildings, in San Francisco and New York, that are not named for him and are managed by a non-Trump company.
The Chinese government also has granted approvals to Trump family trademarks, including preliminary approval for 38 new trademarks for hotels, golf courses and other businesses, according to the Associated Press. The plaintiffs’ group issued a statement Monday saying that in addition to those approvals, “there are almost certainly many more that are not yet known about.”
In court filings, the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center has stressed how difficult it is for Congress or the public to understand the president’s business dealings without the court allowing its case to proceed.
“While it is well known that [the president’s] business empire is vast and global, the exact nature of his holdings and the benefits he receives from them remain unclear,” the center said in filings. Because the president has not released his tax returns, “the complicated interconnection between the hundreds of discrete business entities and shell companies in which he owns an interest makes it impossible to determine the full scope of the benefits he is currently accepting from foreign states.”