Donald Trump’s obsession with the Russia investigation is overshadowing a potentially more serious constitutional crisis that just cleared a major hurdle in federal District Court. The odds of it forcing him from office on corruption charges are potentially far greater than the Russia probe.
The legal controversy centers on the Constitution’s ban on so-called “emoluments,” a legal term referring to gifts or cash given by foreign dignitaries to top government officials.
Trump suffered a major setback in the case this week after U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte cleared the way for the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia to proceed with their case, rejecting a Trump bid to have the lawsuit tossed.
“We are one step closer to stopping President Trump from violating the Constitution’s original anti-corruption provisions,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine a co-plaintiff with Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh.
Citizens for Responsibility, a non-profit Washington, D.C. advocacy group, is also a plaintiff along with a number of legal scholars.
The controlling language is contained in Article I.
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
The clause holds a prominent place in the Constitution, suggesting the matter was of high concern to the founding fathers. But the clause has never been tested in court, nor has any case ever been brought under the provision.
But all that changed when Trump took office and refused to separate himself from his sprawling real estate empire, which includes a hotel in Washington, D.C., that has attracted a steady stream of foreign dignitaries.
Money & Power reported in June a year ago that Trump was being sued for “unprecedented constitutional violations” for accepting millions of dollars from foreign governments through his various business entities,
The lawsuit filed June 12 by Maryland and the District of Columbia presented the first major government challenge over alleged Trump corruption under the emoluments clause.
The latest ruling was a necessary hurdle plaintiffs had to clear to proceed with their case.
In rejecting Trump’s motion to dismiss, Messitte provided the first modern interpretation of the emoluments ban. The 52-page opinion states that any business transactions with foreign governments where Trump derived a “profit, gain or advantage” would be covered.
“This includes profits from private transactions, even those involving services given at fair market value,” Messitte wrote, according to The Washington Post.
“In sum, Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the President has been receiving, or is potentially able to receive ‘emoluments’ . . . in violation of the Constitution,” Messitte ruled.
Lawyers representing Trump and the U.S. Justice Department had argued that the clause should be much more narrowly construed to apply only to “bribes” not from doing business.
The ruling, barring an appeal, now clears the way for the plaintiffs to begin the process of pre-trial discovery, which provides the opportunity to collect evidence and take pre-trial testimony known as depositions.
Significantly, Trump could finally be forced to produce his tax returns. He’s the only president since the 1970s who has refused to make them public.
Frosh told The Post his staff is preparing to demand financial documents related to the president’s D.C. hotel, located in federally owned Old Post Office building. “I think the decision bodes ill for his ownership of the Old Post Office hotel,” Frosh said.
Trump said he would donate all “foreign profits” collected by the business to the federal Treasury, but has failed to provide a comprehensive accounting for examination.
Trump holds a 60-year lease on the building, which he converted to the hotel. The project includes a tax abatement worth an estimated $160 million.
Foreign dignitaries have gone out of their way to stay at the hotel since Trump became president. But the lease specifically prohibits any “elected official of the government” to hold “any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
So far, the General Services Administration (GSA), which administers the lease, has determined that there is no violation.
Other Trump-owned properties, including his expansive Florida estate Mar a Lago, and various golf courses and condominium buildings could also be conduits for foreign funds.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly looking into allegations that Trump laundered money for the Russian mob and Russian oligarchs who are part of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
The lawsuit charges the president remains “deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors,” undermining the integrity of the U.S. political system.
“Fundamental to a President’s fidelity to [faithfully execute his oath of office] is the Constitution’s demand that the President … disentangle his private finances from those of domestic and foreign powers.
“Never before has a President acted with such disregard for this constitutional prescription,” according to the suit.
“This case is, at its core, about the right of Marylanders, residents of the District of Columbia and all Americans to have honest government,” Frosh told the newspaper. “We’ll need to see his financial records, his taxes that he has refused to release.”
Racine also criticized the Republican majority in Congress for failing to address the president’s conflicts of interest.
“We’re getting in here to be the check and balance that it appears Congress is unwilling to be,” he said.