Rule of Law

Appeals court rules Democrats can’t sue Trump over emoluments claims

“The Framers included the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the Constitution as the Constitution’s chief bulwark against the foreign corruption of America’s leaders, and for more than half of his term, President Trump has been violating this critical anti-corruption provision.” — CAC President Elizabeth Wydra

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., threw out a lawsuit accusing President Trump of illegally profiting off his private businesses while in office, ruling that the Democratic lawmakers who brought the suit lack legal standing.

A three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday did not rule on whether the president was violating the Constitution by profiting off foreign governments’ spending at his hotels. The judges unanimously said in a brief 12-page decision that the dispute centering around the Constitution’s emoluments clauses has no place in the court system.

“The Members can, and likely will, continue to use their weighty voices to make their case to the American people, their colleagues in the Congress and the President himself, all of whom are free to engage that argument as they see fit,” the judges wrote. “But we will not—indeed we cannot—participate in this debate.”

Two of the three judges were appointed by Republican presidents and the other by a Democrat.

The decision is a major win for Trump, who unlike every recent president, has refused to relinquish control over his business assets by placing them in a blind trust. And it comes just two days after the president’s acquittal in his three-week long impeachment trial over accusations that he had sought help from the Ukrainian government in investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 presidential race.

Trump learned of the decision just before speaking with reporters at the White House Friday morning as he prepared to leave for a speech in North Carolina.

“It just came out a few minutes ago, so I’ll be reading it on the helicopter but it was a total win,” he said. “It was another phony case and we won it three to nothing. We won it unanimously.”

Trump later touted the decision in a tweet, writing “Another win just in. Nervous Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats in Congress sued me, thrown out. This one unanimous, in the D.C. Circuit. Witch Hunt!”

It’s unclear at the moment whether the Democratic lawmakers will appeal the decision.

“The Framers included the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the Constitution as the Constitution’s chief bulwark against the foreign corruption of America’s leaders, and for more than half of his term, President Trump has been violating this critical anti-corruption provision, accepting benefits from foreign governments without first obtaining Congress’s affirmative consent,” said Elizabeth Wydra, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who is representing the Democrats in the case, in a statement.

“While we are disappointed in the panel’s decision and are in active discussions with our clients as they consider their next steps, it is important to recognize that today’s ruling is not a decision on the merits. The Court of Appeals did not in any way approve of President Trump’s repeated and flagrant violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause,” Wydra added.

The case was brought in 2017 by more than 200 Democratic senators and House members who alleged that Trump’s business holdings violated the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal officials from receiving gifts from foreign countries. The provision says that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

The lawsuit argued that foreign diplomats’ patronage of the president’s hotels opens Trump up to the kind of foreign influence that the framers had sought to avoid, and that the president had not consulted Congress on his business dealings.

The unanimous D.C. Circuit panel said in its decision that the members lacked standing because they did not comprise a majority of either the Senate or House when they filed the lawsuit and therefore did not represent either chamber.

A decision is also expected from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar lawsuit brought by the Democratic attorneys general for D.C. and Maryland. And the Second Circuit last year revived another emoluments case against the president brought by the liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The lawsuits are among the only instances in the nation’s history where federal judges have been asked to grapple with the obscure constitutional provisions.

The Justice Department, which is representing the president in the cases, has been arguing that the clauses should be interpreted narrowly, that they don’t prohibit the kind of normal transactions at businesses like Trump’s even when the customers are foreign officials. The administration has also argued that Congress cannot seek to enforce the clauses in the courts, but must use the legislative tools at its disposal.

The Justice Department has employed that argument frequently in its many disputes with House Democrats playing out in the courts. In March, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a pair of cases involving congressional subpoenas for Trump’s personal financial records.

The D.C. Circuit is also expected to deliver a decision regarding the validity of a House subpoena issued for former White House counsel Don McGahn seeking his testimony in the impeachment inquiry.


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