The U.S. Department of Justice argued Friday that President Trump’s businesses are legally permitted to accept payments from foreign governments while he is in office, and thus Trump is not in violation of a constitutional clause barring the acceptance of emoluments.
In a 70-page legal brief responding to a liberal watchdog group’s lawsuit, the administration said that market-rate payments for goods or services made to the president’s real estate, hotel and golf companies do not constitute emoluments as defined by the Constitution.
Otherwise, they argued, presidents going back to George Washington would have run afoul of the rules barring domestic and foreign emoluments.
Justice Department attorneys referenced a series of Washington’s letters and speeches to support their argument.
“Neither the text nor the history of the Clauses shows that they were intended to reach benefits arising from a President’s private business pursuits having nothing to do with his office or personal service to a foreign power,” the administration argued. “Were Plaintiffs’ interpretation correct, Presidents from the very beginning of the Republic, including George Washington, would have received prohibited ‘emolument.’”
Advocates from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) brought the suit against Trump in January, shortly after he entered office. The group asserted that because Trump-owned buildings take in rent, room rentals and other payments from foreign governments — which may seek to curry favor with him — the president has breached the emoluments clause.
That clause in the Constitution says that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” It was written out of fear that the young republic’s leaders or ambassadors could be bought off by a richer European power, but it has never been tried in court.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and other countries have held state-sponsored events at Trump’s D.C. hotel, and other entities associated with foreign governments lend money to his businesses or lease space in his properties.
CREW had initially argued that its own group was harmed by the president’s actions because his conduct required the organization to divert resources from other issues. In April, two other plaintiffs joined the suit: an association of restaurants and restaurant workers, and a woman who books banquet halls for two D.C. hotels, the Carlyle Hotel near Dupont Circle and the Glover Park Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
In its response, the Justice Department wrote that “CREW’s voluntary decision to focus on its opposition to the President’s financial holdings does not constitute a concrete, judicially cognizable” injury.
The Justice Department argued that the claims by the restaurant group and the competing hotel worker didn’t provide sufficient allegations. They asked Judge Ronnie Abrams for the U.S. District Court in Southern New York to dismiss the suit “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or for failure to state a claim.”
Trump announced shortly before taking office that he would retain ownership of his company but leave it in control of his adult sons, Eric and Don Jr. He vowed that his firm, the Trump Organization, would not pursue new deals while he is in office, and the company said it will donate profits from foreign hotel meeting business to the U.S. Treasury at the end of the year.
Chad A. Readler, acting assistant attorney general, filed the brief for the Justice Department along with Jennifer D. Ricketts, Anthony J. Coppolino, Jean Lin and James R. Powers.