Rule of Law

Federal judge hears arguments about Trump and Emoluments Clause

A federal district court judge grappled Thursday with whether a group of about 200 congressional Democrats can sue President Trump for not seeking congressional approval before accepting payments and benefits from foreign governments through his personal business holdings.

Democrats, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), allege Trump has violated the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which they say was designed by the founders to prevent corruption.

The lawmakers say Trump is getting the payments and gifts through his hotel in Washington, D.C., where foreign diplomats have paid for rooms and hosted events, and from New York’s Trump Tower, where foreign government have paid for space, trademarks, patents, permits and approvals for developments and resorts around the world.

Thursday’s hearing in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia focused solely on whether the lawmakers have suffered the required injury to bring the case forward.

The lawmakers say they’ve been injured because they’ve been denied their constitutional right to vote on whether Trump can accept the payments, benefits and gifts.

The Trump administration argues that the lawmakers have not suffered injury because they have the ability to pass legislation making requirements of the president.

“There are political remedies,” argued Brett Shumate, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice. “The one thing they want they can do.”

Judge Emmet Sullivan, an appointee of former President Clinton, warned those attending the proceedings not to read too much into his questions of attorneys on both sides, but seemed unconvinced by the government’s argument.

He said the Democratic lawmakers’ hands are tied because they can’t get a vote on either of the bills pending in Congress.

Sullivan asked if the Democrats would still have a case if they win back the majority in the House and Senate after the midterm election.

Brianne Gorod, one of the Democrat’s attorneys with the Constitutional Accountability Center, said there’s nothing Congress can do regardless of who has the majority because any law that passes would require the president’s own signature.

She said members are largely in the dark because Trump is not sharing with Congress what gifts or payments he wants to accept, nor providing information about his business holdings.

Leaving the courthouse after the proceeding, Blumenthal said he felt enormously encouraged by Sullivan’s line of questioning.

“The key points he elicited are the same points that we have argued all along,” he said. “We can’t vote on something we don’t know. 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.”

Blumenthal said Congress only knows about the payments, gifts and benefits that Trump has accepted so far because of reports in the press.

“Unless the court grants us the right to go forward, we can’t do our job,” he said.

Sullivan asked during arguments whether a private citizen would have standing to bring the lawsuit.

“We are the only game in town,” Blumenthal said outside the courthouse after arguments. “There are no other individuals who are elected by the people of the United States to exercise that right of consent … under the Constitution.”