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Blumenthal Leads Congressional Democrats In Lawsuit Against Trump
By Russell Blair
Sen. Richard Blumenthal is leading congressional Democrats in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, charging that the president has violated a centuries-old anti-bribery provision of the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign nations through his vast business empire.
The lawsuit, which is expected to be filed Wednesday in federal court in the District of Columbia, says Trump has refused to disclose the foreign payments he has received and is in violation of the Constitution's foreign emoluments clause that prohibits government officials from receiving gifts from foreign governments without first consulting Congress.
In the lawsuit, Democrats cite multiple media reports of foreign officials, including lobbyists and diplomats, planning to stay at Trump's new Washington, D.C., hotel in an attempt "to curry favor with" the president, alleging that the payments from foreign nations to Trump's businesses amount to gifts.
"The framers wrote the emoluments clause and made it central to our constitution because of their fear that the country and its officials would become corrupted," Blumenthal said. "They could foresee ... foreign interference by corrupting our officials through payments or benefits or advantages."
The congressional lawsuit is just the latest legal challenge over whether the payments Trump accepts from foreign governments should be considered foreign emoluments. The Democratic attorneys general in Washington, D.C., and Maryland filed their own lawsuit this week and a liberal watchdog group has been pursuing its own claim since January.
In a legal brief last week in a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Justice Department argued that the emoluments clause has never applied to a president's private business dealings but only to his public service as president. Trump's businesses are legally permitted to accept payments from foreign governments while he's in office, they said.
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"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," attorneys for the Justice Department wrote.
Blumenthal said the lawsuit was the "only relief" available to lawmakers because Trump has refused to engage with Congress about potential emoluments. In their lawsuit, Democrats say they have standing to sue because Trump has denied them the ability to vote on whether to allow Trump to accept foreign emoluments.
"If he stonewalls us ... we cannot consent even if we want to do so," Blumenthal said. He said Democrats are "fully prepared" to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Democrats are asking the court to prevent Trump from receiving any future payments from foreign governments without a vote by Congress. They cited multiple examples of previous presidents who had denied gifts from foreign governments or consulted with Congress on the topic.
But Trump's business empire is unlike any previous president's and has raised new questions about conflicts of interest and what constitutes a gift from a foreign nation under the emoluments clause. He owns hotels, golf courses and residential and commercial buildings around the world. Trump also has a continued stake in the NBC television show "The Apprentice," which has foreign spinoffs that must pay a licensing fee, a portion of which goes to the president.
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With all of his business dealings, Democrats say it's impossible to tell if Trump's policies are in the best interests of the nation as a whole or his companies' bottom lines.
"As [Trump] makes countless other foreign policy decisions, he may ... be influenced by how those decisions will affect his business pursuits," according to the lawsuit.
Trump has turned over day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization to his sons, but he has not completely untangled himself from his business empire.
"He can take an alternative action," Blumenthal said. "He can do what other presidents have done and sell all his holdings. He has chosen a course that is unique among presidents. He has not sold his ownership interests in the Trump Organization, he has not established a blind trust, he continues to be enriched by the proceeds to that organization."
More than 190 Democratic senators and representatives have signed onto the lawsuit, according to Blumenthal. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan joined Blumenthal as a lead plaintiff. The Constitutional Accountability Center, based in Washington, D.C., is representing the lawmakers in the case.
The Democratic-led lawsuit against Trump is not unprecedented. In 2014, Republicans sued then-President Barack Obama over his use of executive orders, specifically in the area of health care, saying he had exceeded his constitutional authority.