Rule of Law

Emoluments Clause Not Too Burdensome For Trump: Judge

A D.C. federal judge said Tuesday that congressional Democrats have a right to seek to enjoin President Donald Trump from allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause by continuing to profit from his private business, rejecting Trump’s complaint that it would be a burden.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan acknowledged that it may take planning for Trump to avoid violating the clause but was unsympathetic to his argument that an injunction would impose “significant burdens” on him.

“The correct inquiry is not whether injunctive relief requiring the President to comply with the Constitution would burden him, but rather whether allowing this case to go forward would interfere with his ability to ensure that the laws be faithfully executed,” Judge Sullivan said.

The suit, filed in June 2018 by 30 members of the U.S. Senate and 166 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, is led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. It accuses the president of violating the emoluments clause by continuing to profit from his sprawling private business, the Trump Organization, while in office. The complaint alleges the president has accepted payments, loans and regulatory actions from foreign governments without the consent of Congress.

No Republicans have signed on to the suit.

Blumenthal has said the president’s tax returns, which have been a source of controversy since early in the 2016 presidential campaign, would be among the documents federal lawmakers would seek in order to identify potential undeclared payments or benefits bestowed on the president by foreign governments.

Judge Sullivan spent much of the 48-page decision mulling the definition of “emoluments,” reviewing the text and structure of the clause, its historical interpretation, and the purpose of the clause, ultimately settling on the plaintiffs’ “ordinary,” broader definition.

Having found the suit’s definition to be accurate, Judge Sullivan determined that the Democrats have stated a claim and that their bid for an injunction is constitutional.

“Adjudicating this case ensures that the President fulfills his duty to ‘take care that the Laws be faithfully executed,’ and consistent with his oath of office to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,'” he said.

Questions about transparency and potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s privately owned business first arose during the presidential campaign when Trump refused to publicly release his tax returns, breaking with decades of tradition by presidential contenders and his own campaign-trail promises.

Those questions intensified when Trump refused to fully divest from his business when he took office in January 2017.

Trump’s U.S. Department of Justice attorneys have argued that any money the president made through his private business interests didn’t constitute gifts. The DOJ said the case should be dismissed because the emoluments claims amount to a political dispute between members of Congress, and courts have historically said those should be resolved through political mechanisms.

But Judge Sullivan, in a September ruling, called the president’s proposed legislative remedies “clearly inadequate,” noting that the Constitution already contains “unambiguous” language prohibiting the president from accepting foreign gifts without consent — which has allegedly gone ignored.

In April, Democratic leaders on the House Oversight Committee urged the U.S. General Services Administration to hand over documents related to its lease for the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., allegedly “withheld for years” from the lawmakers.

The Trump Organization, through its unit Trump Old Post Office LLC, operates the Trump International Hotel in the federal government-owned Old Post Office Building in D.C., under a 60-year, $180 million lease deal signed in 2013.

Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in their letter to the GSA that the agency had readily provided requested documents when Trump began his campaign for president, with lawmakers concerned over whether his ownership stake in the Trump Organization would violate the property’s terms of lease if he were elected.

The plaintiffs are represented by Brianne J. Gorod, Elizabeth B. Wydra and Brian R. Frazelle of the Constitutional Accountability Center.

Trump is represented by the DOJ’s Civil Division.

The case is Blumenthal et al. v. Trump, case number 1:17-cv-01154-EGS, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.