Rule of Law

Democratic lawmakers make their case in court to stop Trump business from accepting foreign payments

For almost two-and-a-half hours Thursday, Democratic members of Congress implored a federal judge to give them more ability to stop President Donald Trump’s family businesses from accepting payments from foreign governments.

The case, before US District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, DC, challenges how the Trump Organization has received trademark approvals from China, hotel rentals and real estate purchases from Saudi Arabian, Emirati and other foreign interests and favorable regulatory decisions from foreign governments while Trump serves in the White House. Congress should learn details about the transactions — called emoluments in this case, a term outlined in in the US Constitution — and approve them before Trump Organization can accept them, the members of Congress allege.

“The reason the founders put that provision in the US Constitution was to ensure that the President of the United States put the nation’s interests ahead of his own,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a lead plaintiff on the suit who was in court Thursday, said afterward.

“Here we have a $500 million loan made by the Chinese government to, in effect, a Trump property in Indonesia within days of the President reversing a ban on a Chinese company that is regarded as a national security threat,” Blumenthal added, citing recent news about the Chinese smartphone company ZTE’s products and a planned Trump Organization luxury hotel and golf course development.

“This provision (on emoluments) involves more than just corruption,” Blumenthal added. “It involves our national security. The stakes could not be higher.”

During the hearing, Sullivan spent far more time pelting questions at Brianne Gorod of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who represents the almost 200 Democratic House and Senate members who brought the case. Sullivan asked whether the Democrats should have Congress officially sign off on the lawsuit for a stronger case — rather than leaving it up to individual members to sue. And, he asked whether the Senate and House could use legislation to keep the President in check. They could not, Gorod said.

But an attorney from the Justice Department pointed out the House and Senate had even drafted bills about the President’s acceptance of emoluments.

The problem could be solved through politics, Brett Shumate, the attorney defending the President, said. The politics just aren’t on the Democrats’ side at the moment.

“They can’t convince their colleagues to bring the matter to the floor,” Shumate said.

But Gorod countered that in this political climate — with Republicans in control of both branches of government — the President would veto any legislation that passed, then a supermajority would need to override that veto. That wouldn’t be an “adequate” political solution to keep the President in compliance with the law, she said.

The emoluments clause of the Constitution gives Congress a unique power, she argued — almost similar to the Senate’s power in confirming presidential nominees to judicial and executive branch positions. Those nominees can’t start their jobs until Congress approves them.

“You said it’s easy. She said it’s simple,” Sullivan said, referring to both sides near the end of the hearing. “It’s frustrating to hear frustration.”

Gorod had argued, “They can’t do the job voters sent them to do,” to vote, Sullivan said. “That’s frustrating.” 

The Democratic members of Congress are asking the court to say the President is violating the law by accepting foreign governments’ business and to force him to seek Congress’ sign-off on every new transaction.

Sullivan did not decide on Thursday whether the case could move forward. Two other cases challenging Trump’s acceptance of foreign government benefits through the Trump Organization are also still working through the court system. One case, which was dismissed by a trial-level judge in New York, is on appeal. Another case, brought by state attorneys general in Washington, DC, and Maryland who claim hotels and event facilities in those states have lost business to the Trump International Hotel in downtown DC, has a court hearing scheduled next week.