The lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia arguing President Donald Trump’s continuing business with foreign governments violates the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution moved forward on Wednesday.
According to a ruling first reported by the Washington Post, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte rejected Trump’s effort to stop the lawsuit. Plaintiffs could now use discovery to interview Trump Organization staff and examine financial records to determine how much money foreign governments have spent at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. The president’s lawyers could also try to appeal again to a higher court.
Discovery could also force the release of Trump’s personal financial records, since he is still so tied up in his companies. Trump is the first major-party presidential candidate — and president — since 1976 to refuse to release his tax returns.
In March, Messitte ruled that the plaintiffs, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), had standing and allowed the lawsuit to proceed, but focused only on the D.C. hotel, not all Trump properties. Their standing is the result of other hotels in their jurisdictions claiming they would suffer a loss of business trying to compete with the president’s hotel ownership, because foreign governments would be able to curry favor with the president by doing business with his hotel over theirs.
Even though Trump handed over nominal control of his business to his sons, Eric and Don Jr., he still owns it and pockets profits. Trump can draw any amount from the company he wishes, whenever he wants, without any kind of disclosure, because he refused to divest himself from any of his businesses before he became president. No other president has prompted this sort of legal fight because no other president had a business from which they refused to divest — even Jimmy Carter famously gave up his peanut farm in rural Georgia.
The Constitution’s Emoluments Clause bars the president from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” unless he has “Consent of the Congress.”
ThinkProgress previously reported that the government of Kuwait cancelled a contract with the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. to host its “National Day” event soon after Trump was elected, and switched the venue for that event to the Trump International Hotel in the city. A source told ThinkProgress in December, 2016 that “members of the Trump Organization pressured the ambassador to hold the event at the hotel owned by the president-elect.” Kuwait agreed to hold this year’s party at Trump’s hotel, as well.
Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Bahrain, and Malaysia have all hosted events at the Trump International Hotel (or in the case of Malaysia, put up 60 staff at the hotel surrounding the prime minister’s White House visit). The president of Romania was at the hotel for breakfast before his visit to the Trump White House last year, but did not say whether he had stayed there.
In March of this year, the Trump Organization said it donated the profits it made from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury — a promise Trump had made before he was inaugurated. At first, the president’s sons refused to disclose a dollar amount, but eventually released a figure for how much the Trump Organization had made in profits thanks to business with foreign governments in 2017: $151,470. That purely comprises profits, not revenue. Between a six-month period from October 2016 to March 2017, the government of Saudi Arabia alone spent $270,000 at the hotel.
The minimal disclosure also fails to provide any kind of information about which foreign governments do business at Trump properties, how much they spent, what they spent it on, and at what time they patronized Trump properties, which puts profits directly into the president’s pockets.
Domestic interests close to the president are also using the hotel to curry favor with the president: Ironically, just the night before the Judge Messitte ruled the case could move forward, tipsters told Politico Playbook they spotted dozens of the president’s allies holding events and spending money at the hotel.
A separate lawsuit, filed last year, saw about 200 Democratic members of Congress sue Trump over the same issue, reflecting the deep frustration they feel at the Republicans who have refused to hold hearings or investigate Trump over his business activities, or much of anything else.