Judge allows Trump foreign gifts case to proceed

2018-03-29 14:51
US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

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Washington – A federal judge on Wednesday allowed Maryland and the District of Columbia to proceed with their lawsuit accusing US President Donald Trump of accepting unconstitutional gifts from foreign interests, but limited the case to the president's involvement with the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

US District Judge Peter J. Messitte's ruling dismissed other sections of the lawsuit that raised concerns about the impact of foreign gifts to the president from Trump Organisation properties outside of Washington.

Maryland and DC accuse the president of violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bans the president and other federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments as well as US states. Specifically, they allege nearby businesses have been subjected to increased competition as a result of the foreign traffic to the Trump Hotel.

"Their allegation is bolstered by explicit statements from certain foreign government officials indicating that they are clearly choosing to stay at the president's hotel because, as one representative of a foreign government has stated, they want him to know 'I love your new hotel,'" Messitte wrote in his 47-page ruling.

But the judge also warned the plaintiffs that their "claims sweep too broadly", saying "it is a considerable stretch, however, to find the requisite injury-in-fact" to Maryland and DC from Trump properties outside of Washington.

Despite Messitte's limited ruling, a watchdog group that has joined the two jurisdictions in the lawsuit was quick to hail the judge's decision.

"This is a major step forward for the emoluments litigation," said Norman Eisen, a former chief ethics lawyer for the Obama administration and chairperson of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also called CREW. Eisen said the decision suggests that states and businesses near Trump enterprises in other parts of the country may also have legal standing to sue.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said "we won the first round. It's a very clear decision that Donald Trump is not above the law and has to be held accountable to the emoluments clause."

DC Attorney General Karl Racine, tweeted: "We have standing to hold Pres. Trump accountable for violating the Constitution."

It was not immediately clear whether the Trump administration would appeal the ruling.

White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to address the issue during an afternoon press briefing, saying "I can't comment on pending litigation".

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokesperson, said "we believe this case should be dismissed, and we will continue to defend the president in court".

Although the Trump Organisation was not a party in the litigation, the company said it was pleased that the judge did not allow the lawsuit to target other Trump properties.

"The court's decision today does significantly narrow the scope of the case," said a company spokesperson. The court has yet to rule on several additional arguments, which we believe should result in a complete dismissal."

If the judge's ruling holds, it could allow Maryland and DC to press for documents showing how foreign government interests or US states used the Trump hotel and how much money they spent there.

Late last year, a judge in New York threw out a similar lawsuit filed by CREW, ruling that the emoluments clause is an issue that Congress should address first. A third federal lawsuit has been filed against Trump on the issue by nearly 200 Democratic members of Congress.

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