Washington (AFP) – A federal court in the US state of Maryland on Wednesday ruled a lawsuit accusing President Donald Trump of receiving illegal foreign payments via his sprawling business empire can move forward.
But while Judge Peter Messitte rejected the motion to dismiss the suit, he limited its scope to the nation’s capital.
The lawsuit — which was brought by Washington and Maryland — alleged that heavy spending by foreign diplomats and embassies at the Trump International Hotel in the nation’s capital, payments by foreign entities at his Trump Tower and Trump International Tower in New York, and other business operations effectively violate the US Constitution’s ban on presidents enriching themselves while in office.
“Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the President is violating the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution by reason of his involvement with and receipt of benefits from the Trump International Hotel and its appurtenances in Washington, DC as well as the operations of the Trump Organization with respect to the same,” Messitte wrote in his ruling.
The Emoluments Clause — which is effectively an anti-bribery measure — bars officials from receiving “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state” while in office without Congressional approval.
But “plaintiffs lack standing to challenge possible constitutional violations by the President involving operations of the Trump Organization outside the District of Columbia from which the President may receive personal benefits,” Messitte wrote.
The attorneys general for Maryland and Washington hailed the judge’s ruling.
– Initial victory –
“We won the first round! Our case moves forward!” Maryland’s Brian Frosh wrote on Twitter.
“Judge in #emoluments case says we have standing to hold Pres. Trump accountable for violating the Constitution,” his Washington counterpart Karl Racine tweeted.
The suit detailed the popularity of the opulent Trump International Hotel with foreign officials since his January 20, 2017 inauguration, alleging that the hotel “has specifically marketed itself to the diplomatic community.”
It pointed to news reports of Asian and Middle Eastern diplomats saying they will go there to impress the president. Kuwait held its national day celebration at the hotel, and Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars there, the suit claims.
In New York, Trump Tower leases space to the Chinese government-controlled bank ICBC and Trump World Tower and other properties also focus on foreign clients, including Russians, it said.
The suit also alleged that Trump benefits from foreign distribution payments for his “The Apprentice” reality TV show and generally from the international real estate projects of the Trump Organization.
The focus on Trump International Hotel stems in part from businesses in Washington and Maryland, some partly owned by the local governments, complaining that its link to the president effectively gives it an unfair competitive advantage.
Billionaire Trump placed his extensive business holdings in a trust after he was elected president and turned day-to-day control over to his sons, but the suit said the president still owns the properties and is well-aware of the money they are earning him.