The Slatest

Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Democrats in Emoluments Lawsuit Against Trump

A sign that says Trump International Hotel.
The Trump International Hotel is seen on March 22 in Washington.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

A federal judge, on Tuesday, ruled in favor of congressional Democrats, allowing their lawsuit that accuses President Trump of violating the emoluments clauses of the Constitution to proceed. More than 200 Democrats in Congress filed suit against Trump last year alleging his ongoing business interests that have continued into his presidency amounts to receiving payments from foreign governments, which is expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Trump has technically stepped down from the day-to-day running of the Trump Organization, but still has ultimate authority over its operation and profits from its success.

That creates problems, Democrats (and others) allege, because the president is in a position to directly benefit from the actions of foreign governments who could stay in his hotels or engage with any of his other businesses as an effort to curry favor. There is a separate case currently working its way through the court system, brought by the attorneys general of D.C. and Maryland, that specifically deals with the potential emolument violations of Trump’s D.C. hotel. In that case, Justice Department lawyers have successfully blocked efforts to subpoena Trump’s financial records, but Tuesday’s ruling gives new hope to Democrats looking to ensure Trump’s opaque financial dealings aren’t above the law.

Justice Department lawyers representing the president had asked the court to dismiss the suit on the basis that, the DOJ says, the clause is not intended to be an overall ban on private business transactions with foreign governments. Despite decades of arguing the exact opposite, far stricter interpretation of emoluments, the DOJ has changed its tune under the Trump administration and adopted a far more tailored interpretation of the clause such that it only bars a president from taking payment from a foreign government for an act he undertakes in his official capacity as president. That literal reading seems like a pretty naive understanding of how influence and corruption are carried out. Either way, Trump’s lawyers say that since his profits are from market-rate transactions they are not emoluments, or gifts, just, you know, deals. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan rejected the DOJ’s narrow interpretation of what constitutes an emolument as “unpersuasive and inconsistent.” Sullivan ruled in September that the Democrats had legal standing to pursue the case, but still needed to weigh in on the definition of an emolument in order to determine if Trump might be breaking the law.

“The emoluments cases, which could eventually end up at the Supreme Court, appear to mark the first time that federal judges have interpreted these clauses and applied their restrictions to a sitting president,” the Washington Post reports. “Led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the Democrats filed their suit last year asking the court to force Trump to stop accepting payments they consider violations of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause.”