Rule of Law

DC Judge Advances Emoluments Case Against Trump

More than 200 Democratic lawmakers can move forward with a lawsuit against President Donald Trump claiming that his private business dealings with foreign governments violate the Constitution, a federal judge ruled Friday.

At the heart of the case is the archaic anti-corruption foreign emoluments clause, which says the president cannot accept foreign payments, benefits or gifts while in office without congressional consent.

During a June 7 hearing the government urged the court to dismiss the case, arguing that the lawmakers – led by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and New Jersey Representative Jerrold Nadler – do not have standing.

More than three months later, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan officially disagreed.

While the government argued the aggrieved lawmakers should draft legislation specifically addressing the president’s ability to accept emoluments, Sullivan said the court can intervene in certain disputes between political branches.

“This case is one of those disputes,” Sullivan stated in his 58-page ruling.

The burden is on the president, not on lawmakers, to persuade Congress to consent to the acceptance of foreign payments, Sullivan said.

“The legislation suggested by the President flips this burden, placing the burden on Members of Congress to convince a majority of their colleagues to enact the suggested legislation,” he added. “This is not what the Clause requires.”

In any case, such legislation would not prevent Trump from taking future gifts or require him to return any he has already accepted, the ruling noted.

“This is a momentous ruling,” Brianne Gorod with the Constitutional Accountability Center, who argued on behalf of the lawmakers in June, said in an email. “Judge Sullivan correctly reviewed the Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit case law in this area, and concluded that President Trump harms members of Congress by accepting benefits from foreign governments without first obtaining their affirmative consent. By recognizing that Members of Congress have standing to sue, the court proved to all in America today that no one is above the law, not even the President. We look forward to making our case on the merits in coming weeks that President Trump is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause and must be permanently enjoined from doing so.”

Blumenthal and the other lawmakers say they’ve been deprived of their rights to vote on, and therefore consent to, any foreign gifts President Trump may have accepted.

All other modern presidents have sought advice about whether an emolument, such as President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, would conflict with the clause.

In addition, prior presidents have submitted letters to Congress detailing an offered emolument, after which Congress votes on whether they can accept it.

According to Sullivan, the lawmakers put forth an injury – the nullification of their individual votes – that can be traced to the president and is redressable by the court.

“Although plaintiffs’ claims raise separation-of-powers concerns, plaintiffs have no adequate legislative remedy and this dispute is capable of resolution through the judicial process,” Sullivan wrote.

While Trump relinquished daily management of his sprawling business, he did not divest from or place his business interests into a truly blind trust. He has also not sought congressional consent for anything that would qualify as an emolument, such as foreign income from his properties.

At this stage, the court must interpret a complaint’s allegations as true before it considers the merits of the case.

If the allegations are true, “the President is accepting prohibited foreign emoluments without asking and without receiving a favorable reply from Congress,” Sullivan wrote (emphasis in the original).

Friday’s ruling comes two months after a federal judge in Maryland advanced a similar lawsuit against the president claiming that profits he receives from his Washington, D.C. luxury hotel from government patrons violates the foreign emoluments clause.

The Justice Department also did not respond to a request for comment.