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."
"We sued because this corruption is taking place in our backyard, and because 325 million Americans shouldn’t have to wonder if the president is putting his personal financial interests ahead of the national interest," Racine said in a statement.
The foreign emoluments clause states 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." The domestic emoluments clause says the president will be paid for his service and "shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them."
Trump turned over management of the Trump Organization to his adult sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. when he was sworn in as president, and said he would give profits he earned from foreign governments to the US Treasury. But he did not divest from the company, prompting lawsuits from DC and Maryland, Democrats in Congress, and government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the Maryland case. The Trump Organization gave the Treasury $151,470 earlier this year, saying it was from Trump's foreign government profits, but Messitte wrote in a footnote that there were no details about how that sum was tabulated.
A federal judge in the US District Court for the District of Columbia heard arguments on Trump's motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Democrats in Congress in early June and has yet to rule. CREW's case out of New York is pending before the US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which has not heard arguments yet.
No court had previously ruled on how exactly to define an "emolument." Arguments before Messitte in June spanned dictionary definitions from the 18th century, a19th century constitutional debate, and the private business activities of past presidents, starting with George Washington.
The Justice Department had argued for a narrower definition — that an "emolument" was a benefit that a president received in exchange for a personal service that he or she performed in their official capacity — such as signing a treaty — or through an employer-employee relationship, such as being on the payroll of a foreign government.
On the definition question, Messitte wrote that the use of "expansive modifiers" in the text of the two clauses — the foreign clause banning "any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever" and the domestic clause banning "any other Emolument" — undermined the government's position that the definition should be narrow. In analyzing what the framers of the Constitution likely had in mind when they were writing the clauses, the judge wrote that it was "highly remarkable" that dictionary definitions from 1604 to 1806 included parts of the broader definition argued by DC and Maryland.
The definition proposed by the government would basically define an emolument as a bribe, the judge wrote, and the Constitution already separately made that a crime. Congress has the power to approve a foreign emolument under that clause, the judge noted, so it wouldn't make sense to criminalize the receipt of something that Congress could also sign off on.
"The more logical conclusion is the one that Plaintiffs urge: The
use of 'any kind whatever' was intended to ensure the broader meaning of the term 'emolument,'" Messitte wrote.