Just as the Sessions/Comey/Russia-Gate issue started to really heat up, Democrats added insult to injury when nearly 200 members of Congress filed a lawsuit which accused President Trump of violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, by profiting from his businesses with foreign governments.
This is actually the third lawsuit against Trump since his inauguration, but it is thought to be the most members of Congress to actually ever sue a sitting president. Their contentions are that Trump has accepted gifts from foreign powers, without getting clearance from Congress, in direct violation of the emoluments clause. The purpose was basically to prevent the government from becoming influenced by any corrupting foreign powers. The DOJ has actually said that “the language of the Emoluments Clause is both sweeping and unqualified,” and the definition of ‘emolument’ is broad. No court has ever actually had to clearly define what is meant by emoluments, however. Due to the broadness and lack of clarity within the definition, and after the Nixon scandal, most modern Presidents have attempted to limit the risk of conflicts of interests with foreign powers by pouring their assets into a blind trust. Of course, Mr. Trump has refused to do this, stating there is no requirement to do so, and that instead, his children will run his business without any interference from him.
This lawsuit, like the others, alleges that Mr. Trump has collected payments from foreign diplomats who stay in his hotels, and accepted trademark approvals from governments for his goods (in particular, China, shortly after the Presidents met). However, this suit is unique in that the plaintiffs also allege particularly and personal harm, stating they themselves have been deprived of their constitutional right to decide whether Trump’s acceptance of such benefits should be allowed. The suit states, “an officeholder, in short, should not be the sole judge of his own integrity.”
The other law suits include a group of private individuals who own hotels or restaurants that they say compete with the Trump enterprise. Another suit filed by the Attorneys General of both Maryland and D.C. accuses Trump of putting state-run hotels owned or operated by their governments at a disadvantage, competitively. Some legal experts have remarked that, because states are deemed to be a coequal sovereign, this law suit might proceed most successfully. Of course, one thing compounding this issue is Mr. Trump’s secrecy about his business dealings. His refusal to release his tax returns, refusal to turn over documents which would show the locations of his interests and accounts, and refusal to put his money and businesses into a blind trust makes it all the more frustrating for Congress to determine whether or not Mr. Trump’s businesses are actually in violation of the law.
Of note with this lawsuit is the clear indication of the increasing partisanship of the country and the Congress. A whopping 196 members of Congress filed this suit, without the participation of a single Republican. The opponents of the suit say that the arguments overreach, and that the emoluments clause was never intended to prevent a President from profiting from a business that he runs at arms-length, and further, it is up for Congress to decide, not a federal judge. The Justice Department has argued that the term ‘emoluments’ should be limited to accepting gifts of payments in his official capacity. The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines the very objective the emoluments clause was designed to prevent – leaders being tempted by money, gifts or advantages from a foreign government in an attempt to interfere with the American democracy. Given the questions surrounding the administration regarding Russia’s role in the last election, it would appear to behoove Mr. Trump to take these allegations seriously, and consider putting his assets in an arrangement that is less likely to lead to serious questions of conflicts of interest.