Trump Organization Deals In Asia Fuel Debate On Emoluments Lawsuit

Jun 7, 2018
Originally published on June 7, 2018 6:07 pm

Updated at 2:19 p.m. ET

The Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution will be rendered meaningless if Democrats in Congress aren't allowed to sue President Trump for violating it, a lawyer for nearly 200 Democratic senators and representatives told a federal judge today.

"There's simply nothing Congress can do to stop the president's actions, no matter who's in control of the body," said Brianne Gorod, chief counsel of the Constitution Accountability Center, representing the Democratic lawmakers.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction compelling Trump to comply with the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which requires federal officials to get congressional consent before they accept gifts or rewards — emoluments — from foreign governments or officials. Trump has never sought that consent; he and his lawyers maintain the clause doesn't apply to his business holdings.

Without court-ordered enforcement, Gorod said, Washington "would essentially write the Foreign Emoluments Clause out of existence."

Gorod and Brett Shumate, a Justice Department lawyer representing Trump, made their arguments to Federal District Judge Emmett Sullivan over whether the Democratic lawmakers have legal standing to sue.

This is the third emoluments case against Trump to reach the courtroom, but its magnitude may be the greatest.

The first emoluments suit was filed on Trump's first day in the Oval Office. Initially, the suits focused on Trump's hotel near the White House, which was drawing business from domestic political groups and foreign governments.

But last month, a Chinese state-owned company has become a partner in a huge resort development in Indonesia, where the Trump Organization is developing a hotel and golf course. And meanwhile, the president has imposed new tariffs on some Chinese exports to the United States, while also saying that he's looking for ways to help a Chinese telecommunications company the U.S. had previously sanctioned.

It "kind of epitomizes why the founders put that [foreign] emoluments clause into the Constitution," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. "They wanted judgments by the president to be made independent of any sort of benefit to him unless the Congress approved, and we cannot approve, we cannot consent to what we do not know." Blumenthal is among the leaders of the plaintiffs' group.

The Justice Department represents Trump, and its lawyers contend that Congress doesn't need a request from Trump before deciding whether to grant consent. "The President has not prevented Congress from voting on whether he may accept alleged emoluments, and Plaintiffs remain free to convince their congressional colleagues to redress their alleged injury," DOJ lawyers wrote in one brief.

The Democrats' lawsuit is the third of three emoluments lawsuits against Trump to be heard in court. A federal judge in New York dismissed a suit filed by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, and a restaurant association; they're appealing it. In a separate case, the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., allege those jurisdictions are economically and financially harmed as political and diplomatic officials shift their business to the Trump hotel from nearby convention centers owned by those governments. The attorneys general have been granted standing by a federal judge in Maryland, and further hearings to define the arguments are scheduled for next week.

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President Trump's overseas business interests were being scrutinized in federal court today. A lawyer for nearly 200 congressional Democrats argued that the president is trying to secretly thwart the Constitution's Foreign Emoluments Clause. Now U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan is weighing in on whether lawmakers have legal grounds to sue the president. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This is the third of three emoluments lawsuits filed against President Trump since he took office. The plaintiffs in the other two focus on the president's hotels and restaurants and how they compete with other such businesses. This suit, though, aims at Trump's international enterprises and how his business interests might collide with America's foreign policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The permits and approval for Trump developments and resorts all around the world worth tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars.

OVERBY: That was Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and one of the leaders on the lawsuit. Another lawmaker, New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler, pointed at some recent deals in Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERROLD NADLER: When the president suddenly shows a solicitude for the Chinese company ZTE, is that because Xi Jinping persuaded the president that to do so is in the best interest of the United States, or was that because the Chinese government granted intellectual property and trademarks to the president's companies or his family?

OVERBY: The Emoluments Clause was put into the Constitution as a bar against foreign corruption, but it's never been tested. President Trump has said the clause doesn't apply to his businesses. The plaintiffs say it does. The Emoluments Clause requires a president to get the consent of Congress before accepting any emoluments.

In the courtroom, Judge Sullivan kept coming back to whether the Democratic lawmakers had other means of enforcing the clause. The Democrats' lawyer was Brianne Gorod of the nonprofit Constitution Accountability Center (ph). She was speaking in an interview before today's arguments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIANNE GOROD: The president, since he took office, has been secretly accepting all manner of different foreign government benefits, and our plaintiffs have standing to challenge all of them.

OVERBY: The Democrats say they've lost the right to vote on something they're supposed to vote on. Brett Shumate of the Justice Department, representing the president, said the Democrats have political remedies - that is, votes on legislation. There are two resolutions pending right now, Shumate said. Law professor Seth Barrett Tillman elaborated on the Democrats' problem in a Skype interview with NPR.

SETH BARRETT TILLMAN: The fact of the matter is - is that they don't control the agenda in Congress. They're the minority party in both houses. It requires complete speculation to say they lost some sort of valuable voting right 'cause the president hasn't asked for consent.

OVERBY: But Gorod told Judge Sullivan that another vote won't solve the problem. She said that if Congress has to vote to force compliance with the Emoluments Clause, then presidents will stop complying with it until Congress makes them. Judge Sullivan gave no indication of when he might rule on whether the lawmakers have standing to sue. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.