Rule of Law

Federal judge: Democrats in Congress can sue Trump in emoluments case

A federal judge has ruled that 200 Democratic members of Congress have legal standing to sue President Donald Trump for allegedly violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments while in office.

The emoluments clause bars presidents from accepting gifts from foreign and domestic interests without consent from Congress.

The case argues that the president has received foreign government favors, such as Chinese government trademarks for his companies, payments for hotel rooms and event-space rentals by representatives of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and proceeds from Chinese or Emirati-linked government purchases of office space in Trump Tower.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan on Friday found that lawmakers have adequately shown that they have suffered harm from the president’s alleged violation of the clause.

“This is a bombshell victory enabling us to move forward to hold the president accountable for violating the chief corruption prohibition in the United States’ Constitution,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut,  told the Associated Press. “President Trump has been violating it repeatedly with impunity and now we as members need to hold him accountable.”

Elizabeth Wydra, attorney for the Democratic lawmakers and president of the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center who argued the case in court, said that “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.”

It was the second ruling by a federal court judge to advance such unprecedented constitutional lawsuits against Trump.

At issue is Trump’s refusal to give Congress any details of these financial transactions or to ask permission from Congress to conduct them.

Trump’s argument is that the transactions do not fit the Founding Fathers’ definition of “emoluments” because they are business deals, not payoffs. But the Democratic members of Congress said the president had effectively nullified their votes by not giving them anything to vote on.

The ruling, which can be appealed to the Supreme Court, says the plaintiffs’ case can proceed.

“The Clause requires the president to ask Congress before accepting a prohibited foreign emolument,” Sullivan wrote. If the allegations made by Democrats are true, he wrote, then “the president is accepting prohibited foreign emoluments without asking and without receiving a favorable reply from Congress.”

The judge has not ruled yet, however, on the merits portion of the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss, such as whether the definition of “emolument” was broad enough to include a foreign embassy paying the president to rent a hotel ballroom.

The Department of Justice, which is representing Trump in the case, said in a statement that it will continue to fight the lawsuit.

“We believe this case should be dismissed,” said Kelly Laco, a spokeswoman for the department, “and we will continue to defend the president in court.”

The District of Columbia case is one of three that argues the president is violating the emoluments clause, but this case is notable because the plaintiffs — members of Congress — are mentioned in the clause itself.

In a separate case, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled in July that the emoluments clause lawsuit filed in a Maryland federal court could proceed against Trump. That case, however, is only limited to earnings Trump has received from the Trump International Hotel, which opened in Washington in September 2016.

The case has moved to the legal discovery stage. The Justice Department, however, has asked for an appeal in that case and for all proceedings to halt until an appeals court rules.