Democrats in Congress can move ahead with their lawsuit against President Trump alleging that his private business violates the Constitution’s ban on gifts or payments from foreign governments, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The decision in Washington from U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan adopted a broad definition of the anti-corruption ban and could set the stage for Democratic lawmakers to begin seeking information from the Trump Organization.

Sullivan’s lengthy opinion addresses Trump’s claim that “emoluments” don’t apply to payments from foreign business activities. He finds, “The President’s definition, however, disregards the ordinary meaning of the term as set forth in the vast majority of Founding-era dictionaries; is inconsistent with the text, structure, historical interpretation, adoption, and purpose of the Clause; and is contrary to Executive Branch practice over the course of many years.”

The court concludes:

Plaintiffs cite contemporaneous documents to support their argument that the purpose of the Clause was “to exclude corruption and foreign influence," ... prompted by the need to guard against “the influence which foreign powers may attempt to exercise in our affairs" ...
With “Emolument” defined broadly as any profit, gain, or advantage, it is clear that the Amended Complaint states a plausible claim against the President for violations of the Clause. Plaintiffs have alleged that the President has accepted a variety of Emoluments from foreign governments—intellectual property rights, payments for hotel rooms and events, payments derived from real estate holdings, licensing fees for “The Apprentice,” and regulatory benefits—without seeking and obtaining the consent of Congress. ... Accepting the allegations in the Amended Complaint as true, which the Court must at this juncture, plaintiffs’ allegations state a plausible claim for relief, and survive the President’s motion to dismiss.

Indeed, foreign powers’ potentially meddling with our foreign policy by virtue of foreign states’ dangling financial benefits in front of Trump and his family is precisely the danger the founders saw to prevent. The questions we now have about Trump’s conduct — e.g., Is Trump acting in his own financial interest or in the country’s interest by looking the other way in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or in refusing to address the severity of Russian interference with our election? — are the kinds of questions that the founders anticipated when they put in the emoluments prohibition.

Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, who consulted on the case, told me the ruling is “very gratifying but not surprising. It’s the president’s corrupt financial entanglements with foreign governments that I’ve always believed would bring him down in the end. The Constitution told us to follow the money — and that’s exactly what we’re doing."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who along with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has led the litigation, was likewise pleased. He told me, “This is another tremendous step, another tremendous victory for the Constitution.” He added that the court should not allow an interlocutory appeal. “There is no reason this case should be treated any differently. This 48-page opinion is extraordinarily well-reasoned. The next step should be disclosure and discovery.”

Blumenthal stressed that unlike the case brought by Maryland and the District of Columbia, the congressional case is not limited simply to his D.C. hotel. Blumenthal said that “this lawsuit is much broader” and could entail transactions in “Saudi Arabia, Russia, Indonesia, go down the list.” The financial documents at issue would include records of the Trump Organization and, of course, Trump’s tax returns.

If Trump is denied an appeal at this stage, he will be obligated to comply with the court’s order and proceed to discovery. Blumenthal warned that Trump dare not defy the court(s). “Ultimately, his defiance of a legitimate court order would put him at serious legal jeopardy, " Blumenthal said. This is not a subpoena from Congress that must be enforced in court, but rather court order(s) “from litigation where the legitimacy of the claims has been upheld.”

Former prosecutor Renato Mariotti told me, “If Judge Sullivan does not permit an immediate appeal, or if the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, Trump could be subject to extensive discovery about his business dealings and his inauguration. Given that there are ongoing criminal investigations of Trump’s businesses and inaugural committee, this should be a significant concern to his attorneys.”

We’ve noted before that although Trump has fixated on the Mueller probe, his Achilles’ heel has always been his finances. It is those finances that congressional litigants will get to examine. Likewise, Trump’s finances continue to be the subject of interest for the New York state attorney general and the Southern District of New York prosecutors.

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