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Congressional Democrats Sue Trump Over Foreign Emoluments

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

By Christine Stuart

Nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress filed a federal complaint Wednesday against President Donald Trump, saying his vast international business holdings violate a centuries-old anti-bribery provision of the U.S. Constitution.

Trump has been the subject of at least four complaints under the Emoluments Clause since his inauguration. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics brought the first in January, and the attorney generals of Maryland and Washington, D.C., brought the last just this past Monday.

Filed in Washington this morning, the new case led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut brings up a provision of the clause that says Trump cannot accept prohibited emoluments — meaning payments, benefits or gifts — from foreign states without the consent of Congress. Thirty-one other members of the U.S. Senate signed the complaint, along with 160 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

That Trump has is indisputable, the congressmen note, pointing to the president’s own acknowledgement, through his personal attorney, “that his businesses receive funds and make a profit from payments by foreign governments, and that they will continue to do so while he is president.”

“Further, public reporting has confirmed that defendant and his businesses have already accepted some benefits from foreign states since he took office,” the complaint continues.

Making matters worse, Blumenthal says Trump “has taken the position that the Foreign Emoluments Clause does not require him to obtain such approval before accepting benefits arising out of exchanges between foreign states and his businesses.”

“Because Defendant has failed to come to Congress and seek its consent for at least some foreign emoluments that have been the subject of public reporting, it is impossible to know whether Defendant has also accepted, or plans to accept, other foreign emoluments that have not yet been made public,” the complaint states. “By accepting these benefits from foreign states without first seeking or obtaining congressional approval, Defendant has thwarted the transparency that the ‘Consent of the Congress’ provision was designed to provide.”

The complaint says Trump’s sprawling corporate empire “includes more than 500 separate entities — hotels, golf courses, media properties, books, management companies, residential and commercial buildings, … airplanes and a profusion of shell companies set up to capitalize on licensing deals.”

While it is well known that Trump’s “business empire is vast and global, the exact nature of his holdings and the benefits he receives from them remain unclear,” according to the lawmakers’ complaint.

“Defendant has refused to release his tax returns, and the complicated interconnection between the hundreds of discrete business entities and shell companies in which he owns an interest makes it impossible to determine the full scope of the benefits he is currently accepting from foreign states,” the complaint continues.

Blumenthal goes onto say that Trump’s failure to seek the consent of Congress injures members like him.

“Although Defendant Donald J. Trump has accepted the privilege of occupying the highest office in the land, he is not obeying the same rules as the federal officers and employees described above or following the example of compliance set by former presidents,” the complaint states. “He has refused to divest from his businesses and instead continues to accept financial payments and other benefits from foreign states through his many business entities without first obtaining the consent of Congress.”

Blumenthal and his congressional co-plaintiffs note that the Founding Fathers put the Emoluments Clause in place because they saw the dangers of corruption and foreign influence that were prevalent in the European practice of diplomatic gift-giving.

The acceptance of foreign emoluments was one of the few measures to be transferred from the Articles of Confederation to the new Constitution in 1787, reflecting its importance to the Founding generation.

Whether tangible or otherwise, according to the complaint, the clause has been widely understood “to apply to any rewards or benefits given by foreign states—whether tangible or honorary, monetary or nonmonetary, of great value or slight.”

The complaint goes onto list the gifts that were bestowed upon other U.S. presidents, who informed Congress of the gifts.

According to the complaint, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the king of Siam in 1862 regarding gifts that the king had sent to the president: two decorative elephant tusks, an ornate sword and a photograph of the king. After alerting Congress of the gifts, Congress directed the items to be deposited with the Department of Interior.

More recently, President John F. Kennedy was offered honorary Irish citizenship in 1963 by the government of Ireland. “The White House sought the views of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which advised that acceptance would implicate the Foreign Emoluments Clause,” the complaint states. “Kennedy declined to accept the honor.”

Blumenthal notes that there is a reason why the Founders wanted these decisions left to Congress.

“By entrusting Congress with responsibility for deciding which specific benefits could be received from foreign states, the Founders ensured that federal officeholders would not decide for themselves whether particular emoluments were likely to compromise their own independence or lead them to put personal interest over national interest,” the complaint states. “An officeholder, in short, would not be the sole judge of his own integrity.”

In addition to the suits by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and by the pair of Democratic attorneys general, Trump as faced Emoluments Clause complaints by a D.C. restaurant group and a Miami attorney.

Blumenthal had planned to address reporters about his filing, but the press conference was canceled after news broke this morning of a fatal shooting at congressional baseball practice.

The Constitutional Accountability Center, based in Washington, D.C., is representing the lawmakers in the latest case.

The complaint says Trump is at least part-owner of numerous business ventures around the world, including in Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Scotland, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the Philippines. Many of these ventures are in the planning stages, and, as public reports note, “foreign developers could stand to benefit if their governments were to grease the skids for Trump-branded projects as a way to curry favor with the new American president.”

The complaint goes onto site conversations Trump has had with foreign officials in some of these countries following his election.

For example, when Argentine President Mauricio Macri called Trump to congratulate him on his victory, Trump “reportedly asked him ‘to deal with the permitting issues that are currently holding up’ a project that Defendant and Argentine partners have been working on for a number of years, namely, the development of a major office building in Buenos Aires.”

Three days after the conversation, the project was moving ahead.