The owners of an upscale Washington restaurant have become the latest to sue Donald Trump. Their claim: The president’s ongoing affiliation and ownership of the Trump International Hotel in D.C.—along with its in-house dining options—have put them at an unfair business disadvantage when competing for customers. Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross, who own Cork Wine Bar and the Cork Market & Tasting Room, aren’t asking the D.C. Superior Court for money to compensate for their alleged lost business. Instead, they’re asking the court to force Trump to remedy the situation himself by either fully divesting from his hotel, shuttering it while he is in office—or, dramatically, resigning as president of the United States.
Trump’s D.C. hotel has long served as Exhibit A for those worried about the glaring conflicts of interest created by President Trump’s sprawling financial interests. It was cited in the federal lawsuit claiming Trump is violating the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause by accepting money from foreign governments and has similarly been the subject of a formal complaint from watchdogs who believe Trump’s continued ownership of the hotel violates the government lease that dictates no government official benefit from it. This new suit, however, is unique for two reasons: 1) It was filed in local court citing local law, and 2) the plaintiffs seem more likely to get an actual hearing on the matter.
While many ethics experts agree that Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause, the federal lawsuit over that ultimately faces a separate challenge: the question of standing. In order to sue someone, plaintiffs generally need to prove that they were specifically harmed by the alleged wrongdoing in question. As I’ve explained before, that’s no easy task for the ethics watchdog—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW—behind the federal suit. The plaintiffs in the D.C. lawsuit, though, seem to have a somewhat clearer path to court since they have a more direct claim of financial harm.
Proving Trump is associated with the hotel shouldn’t be a difficult lift. While the president stepped down from running the day-to-day operations of his company before being sworn in, he never actually divested himself of his financial interests in his company. He’s also visited the D.C. hotel as president—including during inauguration weekend—and his own White House spokesman has plugged the establishment in his official government capacity at least once. And, of course, there’s the simple matter that his last name is prominently displayed in big block letters on the hotel’s signage.
The more difficult task, however, will be proving Trump and his new hotel are the root of Cork’s problems. As the Washington Post notes, the two establishments, which are about a mile-and-a-half away from the Trump hotel, face plenty of more local competition as well. “Pitts and Gross were trailblazers when they opened on 14th Street among pawnshops and vacant storefronts in 2008,” the paper explains. “Since then, more than two dozen restaurants have opened nearby.” There’s also the issue of size: The two Cork establishments combined have only roughly half the square-footage of the Trump hotel’s main ballroom.
For its part, the Trump Organization was quick to dismiss the suit, with lawyer Alan Garten calling it a “wild publicity stunt completely lacking in legal merit.” That’ll be for the courts to decide, though it is not unreasonable to think that the lawsuit may drum up some more business for Cork in the meantime. Nordstrom, for example, got plenty of free press and goodwill from progressives for doing far less. Meanwhile, another possible incentive for taking the president to court might be the owners’ politics. As the Associated Press notes, in addition to being a restaurateur, Pitts is also a politician. He ran in 2014 as an independent for a seat on the D.C. City Council. Prior to his run, he’d been registered as a Democrat, and he has previously worked for the Service Employees International Union and the Sierra Club. Gross, meanwhile, is a lawyer who previously worked for then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.* None of that, though, proves this suit is more about politics than about the bottom line.
The complaint blames the president directly, claiming Trump and his associates have created the perception that spending money at the Trump hotel would come with perks for the politically minded. That, the plaintiffs contend, is costing them in the form of lost tabs from lobbyists, fundraisers, and other political players. “There is a reason that the senior staff hang out in the lobby bar at the [Trump] hotel,” a D.C.-based lobbyist quoted anonymously in the complaint says. “They are seeing who spends time and money there and who books large parties there and large blocks of rooms for delegations.” The unnamed lobbyist concluded: “Point is, someone is paying attention to the person who orders the $1,000 bottle of wine.”
*Correction, March 9, 2017: A previous version of this post conflated the work histories of both Pitts and Gross.