Rule of Law

Democrats to sue Trump over conflicts of interest

Dozens of House and Senate Democrats plan to sue President Donald Trump in the coming weeks, claiming he is breaking the law by refusing to relinquish ownership of his sprawling real-estate empire while it continues to profit from business with foreign governments.

The lawsuit follows months of threats from Democratic lawmakers that Trump, by refusing to sell off his companies or place them in a blind trust, is in ongoing violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause — which prohibits the president from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments — and might face consequences.

“We’ll be suing to stop his violations of the emoluments clause,” senior House Judiciary member Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) confirmed in an interview. The lawsuit won’t be filed until next week at the earliest but dozens of Democrats on both sides of the Capitol have already signed on in support, Nadler said.

The legal case is just the latest volley in an ongoing war between the White House and lawmakers — mostly Democrats — over potential conflicts of interests related to the Trump corporation’s overseas business deals and foreign governments looking to curry favor with the administration.

Nadler said by his latest count a couple of weeks ago, 78 House Democrats and 25 Democratic senators had signed on in support of the lawsuit. The nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center is leading the case, Nadler said.

The Constitutional Accountability Center did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment.

“I’m proud of my Judiciary members for bringing it up,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who also serves on the panel, said in an interview. “It’s about time.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is spearheading the emoluments effort in the upper chamber, told POLITICO that “there have been extensive discussions” recently on moving forward with legal action.

Other lawmakers and aides were hesitant to provide additional information on the record, saying the lawsuit is still being fleshed out, but did not dispute details about the level of Democratic support when asked.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington brought a similar emoluments case against Trump in January — which the president dismissed as “without merit” — and has since added multiple plaintiffs, including hotel and restaurateurs who argue they are losing business by foreign governments choosing to hold their events at Trump-owned hotels.

The Department of Justice has until Friday to offer its response in the watchdog’s lawsuit. But Nadler says he thinks while the lawsuits are similar, lawmakers have a much stronger case against Trump.

“Members of Congress we say have standing because the emoluments clause says without the permission of Congress, you can’t accept any gift, etc., etc., from a foreign state,” Nadler said. “We are injured by being denied our right to vote on this, that’s our standing.”

Lawmakers backing the lawsuit said they aren’t worried about the case zapping any bipartisan goodwill between Democrats and the White House, saying whatever existed when Trump first came into office is long gone.

And Democrats’ relationship with the White House is particularly strained after the Trump administration recently ordered its agencies to ignore oversight requests from members of the minority, a move they argue is part of a pattern by the White House to keep even harmless information about its inner workings hidden from congressional oversight.

“It’s cynical and it’s wrong and, importantly, it’s part of a broader pattern of the darkness with which this administration is progressing toward,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.).

“Removing access to visitor logs, threatening to cut off daily briefings, failure to keep with modern American history and disclose his tax returns, he’s heading toward increasing darkness.”

Trump has fought past efforts to force him to sell off his companies, instead putting his businesses in a trust managed by his two sons. Company profits that come from foreign governments are to be donated to the Treasury to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, Trump’s lawyer said when the plan was first announced in January.

But even that seems to be in flux, with the Trump Organization saying in March it won’t donate profits earned from foreign officials until 2018 at the earliest. And more recently, Trump officials spurred a new round of outrage from Democrats after saying it would be “impractical” to single out every foreign guest staying at Trump hotels for profit-donation purposes.

“There is almost no litigation on this since the Constitution was established…because no one has ever violated this the way we think Trump has,” Nadler said.

“This president has huge business interests and hasn’t divested himself. And the result is if you go to a Trump hotel, you’re putting money into Trump’s personal pocket. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except if you’re a foreign government.”