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Democrats’ emoluments lawsuit against President Trump can proceed, federal judge rules

Congressional Democrats argue that the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution is being violated when foreign government visitors stay or host events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, shown above.
Congressional Democrats argue that the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution is being violated when foreign government visitors stay or host events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, shown above. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Rejecting a request from President Trump, a federal judge in Washington on Tuesday cleared the way for nearly 200 Democrats in Congress to continue their lawsuit against him alleging that his private business violates an anti-corruption provision of the Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan declined to put the case on hold and said lawmakers could begin this week seeking financial information, interviews and other records from the Trump Organization.

“This case will be poised for resolution within six months; an immediate appeal would hardly materially advance its ultimate termination,” Sullivan wrote in a 12-page ruling rejecting the president’s position.

The Trump administration still can try to delay or block Democrats in Congress from issuing subpoenas for the president’s closely held business information by appealing directly to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to intervene.

The decision is another significant step in one of two novel cases considering the “emoluments” clauses of the Constitution, which bar the president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign or state governments.

The cases, which could eventually reach the Supreme Court, mark the first time federal judges have interpreted these clauses and applied the restrictions to a sitting president.

The “practical consequences” of the court’s orders “cannot be overstated,” Trump administration lawyers wrote, in asking for a midstream appeal before Sullivan’s final judgment.

Justice Department lawyers had asked Sullivan to take the unusual step of signing off on an immediate appeal of his earlier rulings because of the “exceptional circumstances” of the case. “Plaintiffs are now poised to seek civil discovery against the President, including into his personal finances and official actions, which will distract the President from his official duties.”

Sullivan ordered the two parties to begin the process of requesting records and other information as part of a three-month discovery period from Friday to Sept. 27.

The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kelly Laco said the government would appeal. “This case should have been dismissed. It presents important questions that warrant immediate appellate review and is another impractical attempt to disrupt and distract the President from his official duties,” Laco said in a statement.

The case is one in a number of disputes in which Democrats are pursuing private financial information about Trump and the Trump Organization, which the president is maintaining ownership of while in office.

In a second emoluments case, brought by the attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland, a federal judge also denied the Trump administration’s request for an immediate appeal. But the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed to review the case and temporarily blocked subpoenas from the attorneys general for financial records and other documents related to Trump’s D.C. hotel.

The 4th Circuit, which reviews cases from Maryland, heard oral argument in March, and could issue a ruling at any time.

Federal appeals court temporarily blocks discovery in Trump emoluments lawsuit

The congressional emoluments case in Washington was initiated last year by about 200 Democrats, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). They want the court to order the president to stop accepting payments they consider violations of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause. The lawmakers and attorneys from the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center say the provision was designed to guard against undue influence by foreign governments by barring any “emolument” — meaning a gift or payment — without prior approval from Congress.

“Judge Sullivan articulated what the law makes clear: there is absolutely no reason to delay one more day in ensuring that President Trump is held accountable for his violation of the Constitution’s preeminent anti-corruption provision,” Blumenthal said in a statement Tuesday.

In September, Sullivan ruled that lawmakers had legal standing to sue and allowed the case to continue in part because the foreign emoluments clause “requires the President to ask Congress before accepting a prohibited emolument.”

Sullivan issued an additional opinion in April adopting a broad definition of “emolument” backed by the congressional Democrats. Sullivan described the record as “overwhelming evidence” from “over two hundred years of understanding the scope of the clause to be broad.”

Saudi-funded lobbyist paid for 500 rooms at Trump's hotel after 2016 election

Lawyers for the nonprofit organization had characterized the president’s latest request for an immediate appeal as a delay tactic designed to prevent any resolution of the case before the end of his term.

“If the President succeeds in running out the clock, an entire presidential term will have gone by with the nation’s highest officeholder making countless foreign policy decisions under a cloud of potentially divided loyalty and compromised judgment caused by his enrichment from foreign states,” according to the court filing from the Constitutional Accountability Center.

How the Trump hotel changed Washington's culture of influence

Sullivan in his ruling Tuesday, said the president failed to meet the legal standard for showing that an immediate appeal was warranted and might “advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.”

“Even though discovery has not begun, it will be scheduled to conclude and cross motions for summary judgment to be fully briefed within six months,” Sullivan wrote.

The Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a few blocks from the White House, has attracted a number of government clients. The Kuwaiti Embassy has held its National Day celebration there three years in a row. Lobbyists representing the Saudi government reserved blocks of rooms in December 2016. Paul LePage, then the governor of Maine, stayed at the hotel and dined at its restaurant in 2017.

Despite the lawsuits over emoluments, the Trump Organization did more business with foreign governments in 2018 than it did the year before. The company said it received about $191,000 in profits from large events and hotel bookings paid for by foreign governments last year, money it donated to the U.S. Treasury. The previous year the company reported about $150,000.

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