- By David FrancisDavid Francis is a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covers international finance. An award-winning journalist, David has reported from all over Europe, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico, and Afghanistan on terrorism, national security, the geopolitics of energy, global economics, and the European financial crisis. His work has been published in outlets including the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times Deutschland, Slate, and SportsIllustrated.com.
Republican lawmakers have shown little interest in holding President Donald Trump accountable for much of anything. Now, the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland are giving oversight a try.
On Monday, the two filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of violating a part of the U.S. Constitution put in place to prevent the specter of corruption. Specifically, they accuse Trump of improperly accepting payments from foreign governments through his business interests, arguing that this is a violation of the Constitution’s once-obscure emoluments clause.
“It’s unprecedented that the American people must question day after day whether decisions are made or actions are taken to benefit the United States or to benefit President Trump,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said at a news conference Monday.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the suit Monday as a partisan ploy, saying that Trump’s business interests do not violate the clause. The General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees the three-year-old lease of the old Post Office building turned Trump Hotel, has found that the Trump Organization is in “full compliance” with the lease.
When taking office, Trump broke with many presidential traditions, including putting assets into a blind trust to avoid conflict of interests. Instead, he moved his business interests into a trust managed by his sons. That, according to the president, removed any potential conflicts.
Except Trump still makes money from his investments. Foreign governments — including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Georgia — have all booked rooms at Trump’s new Washington hotel. The Washington Post reported that the Kuwaitis even moved their booking to Trump’s place, foregoing the Four Seasons, a hotel they had booked for years. The Saudis spent $270,000 at Trump’s hotel while lobbying against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would allow U.S. citizens to sue other governments for terrorist attacks.
“We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favor with the president of the United States,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, a Democrat, said.
In January, Trump pledged to track profits from foreign governments and donate them to the U.S. Treasury. There’s no indication that he has done that. Rather, he has shifted responsibility to the foreign government delegations who stay at his hotel; they’re the ones who should be tracking the cash they spend at Trump’s hotels.
It’s uncharted territory, legally speaking: The Supreme Court has never heard a case about the foreign emoluments clause.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a similar suit against the president earlier this year. The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to dismiss the complaint, arguing the emoluments clauses do not prohibit sitting presidents from owning businesses. Legal experts said the D.C. and Maryland suit is legally stronger because states have standing to sue the president.
And it could have one important impact: Trump could be forced to release his tax returns as part of the discovery process. Trump broke with decades of tradition during the campaign and declined to release his returns, claiming he was under audit. The IRS notes that even if there is an audit, that is no reason not to release them.
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