Attorney generals from Maryland and the District of Columbia have decided to take their lawsuit against President Trump from his professional position to his personal life, and have expanded their suit, regarding emoluments.
The expanded suit claims that by directing foreign and state government officials to use Trump properties, that counts as “gifts,” that will enrich Trump, beyond his duties as president. For that reason, they’re not just suing Trump the president, but also Trump the businessman.
And this is murky territory, to say the least.
From the Associated Press:
“The conventional understanding is that once the president is sworn in … everything he does is official, so he doesn’t have a personal capacity any longer. That’s kind of the assumption, but that could be wrong,” said Mark Brown, a constitutional law expert at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, is one of several recent cases challenging Trump’s ties to his business ventures and his refusal to divest from them. The suits allege that foreign governments’ use of Trump’s hotels and other properties violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans the president’s acceptance of foreign gifts and money without Congress’ permission. The clause has never been fully tested in federal court and Trump’s Justice Department attorneys have argued that hotel room stays do not represent “foreign gifts.”
I mean, if a constitutional law expert wasn’t sure if it was wrong or not…
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte addressed the “official versus individual” conundrum last month, and was the one who suggested the plaintiffs rework their complaint to include Trump’s personal capacity.
“They’re not talking about things he’s doing as president, they’re talking about something he’s doing benefiting from as a private owner of a business,” Messitte said in court, noting that the provision of hotel rooms has nothing to do with Trump’s role as president. “Are you saying it does? … Should he be sued in his official and private capacity?”
“While we continue to believe that the complaint would be sufficient as to the president in his official capacity, the court’s questions at the hearing suggested that as an independent and alternate ground, it might be sound to proceed against the president in his personal capacity as well,” said Norman Eisen, chairman of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is co-counsel on the case.
And this new venture makes it possible for Trump to bring his personal attorneys into it.
The Trump administration is looking to have the case dismissed (of course), but Messitte has yet to determine if he’ll allow the case to move forward. If he doesn’t dismiss the case, it moves next to discovery, and that may be the main goal, even more so than actually winning the case.
To get to discovery, it would necessitate opening up the info on Trump’s business. It would give his opponents access that has otherwise been denied, as Trump is the first president since Nixon to fail to disclose his tax returns.
Still, the plaintiffs insist this isn’t just about getting to the discovery phase.
Rob Marus, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, said the case is about getting the president to stop violating the Constitution, not merely about getting to discovery.
According to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh: “This is the first time that anyone has had to sue a president for violating or nation’s original anti-corruption law — the emoluments clause.
“During the hearing on the motion to dismiss, the judge’s questions led us to the conclusion that it is advisable and perhaps necessary to sue Donald Trump as an individual,” he told The Associated Press. “We took that step today.”
A similar lawsuit was brought in 2017 by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). It was tossed out late last year by a judge in New York, who said it was an issue for Congress to take up. That decision was appealed last week, and a third lawsuit was entered by almost 200 Democrat members of Congress (because of course).
You’ve got to admit, Trump’s secrecy about his finances has added heft to suspicions of wrong doing. He promised on the campaign trail to be completely open with his taxes, then quickly backtracked when it looked as if people were ready to take him up on it.
I mean, seriously, if Nixon was willing to do it…