Rule of Law

Dems, Trump attorneys square off over president’s business dealings with foreign governments

An attorney representing some 200 Democrats in Congress told a federal judge Thursday that President Donald Trump is violating the U.S. Constitution by accepting favors from foreign governments without congressional approval.

The lawmakers, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), argue that payments and other benefits to Trump’s far-flung businesses from foreign governments and their representatives violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause of Article I of the Constitution.

The Democratic lawmakers are asking the court to force Trump to comply with the emoluments clause, written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers in 1787. It requires a president to win majority approval from both houses of Congress before accepting emoluments — gifts or rewards — from foreign governments or their representatives.

Brianne Gorod, chief counsel of the nonprofit, Washington-based Constitutional Accountability Center, urged Judge Emmet G. Sullivan at a hearing at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to allow the suit to proceed.

Gorod said Trump is seeking to “essentially write the Foreign Emoluments Clause out of existence.”

But Brett Shumate, a Justice Department attorney, asked Sullivan to dismiss the case. Shumate argued Trump is not in violation of the emoluments clause and that the members of Congress have suffered no injury because of his business dealings with foreign governments.

Shumate called the Democrats’ suit a “political dispute.”

But Sullivan labeled “troubling” the Justice Department’s contention that members of Congress lacked standing to bring the suit, adding, “It seems like a stretch there.”

Trump has not divested his assets, as previous presidents have done. The Democratic lawmakers said in court papers that the Trump Organization, which the president owns, has more than 550 business entities in 20 countries. The Democrats’ lawsuit said the president has benefited from foreign patronage of his hotels, golf courses and event centers, rentals of his office space and licensing deals from representatives of countries including China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.

After the hearing, Blumenthal told reporters: “The president has failed to come forward to seek the consent of Congress for repeated sizable benefits, payments and gifts to him by foreign governments. Unless the court grants us the right to go forward, we can’t do our job.”

Blumenthal said members of Congress know how Trump benefits from business dealings with foreign governments only because of media reports.

“We know the tip of the iceberg of what the president has done to accept foreign payments, benefits and gifts,” Blumenthal said. “We can’t vote on what we don’t know and he has the burden to come to us.”

Sullivan did not indicate when he would decide whether to allow the suit to proceed.

The Democrats’ suit marks the third filed against Trump claiming he violated the emoluments clause.

The nonprofit, Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a New York-based hospitality group, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, are appealing after a federal judge in New York dismissed their challenge in December.

In the other emoluments suit against Trump, attorneys general in Maryland and Washington, D.C., contend they’re harmed by foreign representatives booking the Trump International Hotel in the nation’s capital instead of convention centers the governments own in the two jurisdictions.