A federal judge on Wednesday once against rejected President Donald Trump's efforts to get a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of his financial ties to his Washington, DC, hotel dismissed.
The District of Columbia and the state of Maryland sued Trump last year, claiming he had violated the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the US Constitution by refusing to give up his interest in the Trump International Hotel in DC and then profiting from the business of foreign, state, and local governments. In the latest phase of the case, the fate of the lawsuit turned on how exactly US District Judge Peter Messitte defined an "emolument."
Messitte wrote in Wednesday's opinion that he had adopted the broader definition of "emolument" — meaning any "profit," "gain," or "advantage" — argued by the challengers, and that DC and Maryland had "plausibly alleged" at this stage that Trump was receiving or able to receive "emoluments" in violation of the US Constitution. The historical record indicated that the two clauses were meant to serve as "broad anti-corruption provisions," the judge wrote.
"Sole or substantial ownership of a business that receives hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year in revenue from one of its hotel properties where foreign and domestic governments are known to stay (often with the express purpose of cultivating the President’s good graces) most definitely raises the potential for undue influence, and would be well within the contemplation of the Clauses," Messitte wrote.
It's the latest loss for the president and the Justice Department in the Maryland litigation. Messitte, who sits in Greenbelt, Maryland, ruled in March that Maryland and DC had standing to pursue claims against Trump, over the government's objections.
Now that Messitte has denied Trump's motion to dismiss the claims against him in his official capacity as president — there's a separate dispute Messitte has yet to resolve about whether Trump as an individual can be sued — lawyers for the challengers will be able to seek documents and other evidence about the hotel and Trump's profits. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said their document demands could include Trump's much-sought-after tax returns, and that if they aren't satisfied with what the government turns over, they could seek to depose the president.
"We're very pleased with the opinion. The judge found that the Emoluments Clauses are, as we alleged, the original broad anti-corruption laws of the United States and that they can be enforced," Frosh said.
Justice Department spokesperson Andy Reuss said in a statement that, "We continue to maintain that this case should be dismissed, a position that was shared by a New York court in a related case. The Justice Department is reviewing the order and determining next steps." A federal judge in New York previously dismissed a similar lawsuit; that ruling is on appeal.
DC Attorney General Karl Racine tweeted that Wednesday's decision meant the challengers "are one step closer to stopping President Trump from violating the Constitution’s original anti-corruption provisions."