Md., D.C. suing Trump: Somebody had to do it

Last month, an artist named Robin Bell projected the words, “Pay Trump bribes here” on the side of the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. But apparently nobody needed the instructions. Kuwait, which had been planning an event at the Four Seasons in D.C., switched its National Day event booking over to the Trump International. Saudi Arabia reportedly spent $270,000 there during the transition and the first months of the Trump administration. Bahrian and Azerbaijan held events there. So did the Turkish government-linked businessman whose previous claim to fame was having hired former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn for lobbying work.In April, Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kaha Imnadze, stayed there. And just in case the president didn’t happen to notice him there — it is, reportedly, the only place in D.C. Mr. Trump has dined since taking office — Mr. Imnadze took to the president’s preferred medium of Twitter to sing its praises. “So far the best service I’ve seen in the United States!”

President Trump said in January that he would avoid conflicts by turning his businesses over to his sons to run, that he wouldn’t pursue new deals and that he would donate any profits derived from foreign government-linked entities. That was, at best, a woefully inadequate effort, and its implementation has been a farce.

The Trump hotels division is now planning an aggressive push into the non-luxury market with a chain of three-star “American Idea” hotels, starting in Trump-friendly red state markets.

And in a response last month to an inquiry from Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Trump Organization outlined a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for foreign government-connected guests.

“It is not the intention nor design of this policy for our properties to attempt to identify individual travelers who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity,” the company said in its response because to do so would “diminish the guest experience of our brand.”

A few activists have attempted to sue President Trump to force him to divest more fully, at least from the Trump International, on the grounds that he has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution (“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”) But it is unclear whether the courts will agree that they have the standing to sue.

The announcement Sunday by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine has more weight. Both can point to direct harms (less business for government-supported convention centers in the two jurisdictions, as well as the potential threat both face from presidential retaliation, based on the concentration of federal jobs in the region), and a separate clause in the Constitution related to domestic emoluments gives states a stake that individual litigants lack. Messrs. Frosh and Racine argue that the suit is directly related to Americans’ confidence that they are receiving the president’s honest services, untainted by his personal interests. Crucial to that effort is obtaining through the discovery process copies of Mr. Trump’s tax returns, which he, unlike every president in decades, has refused to release.

There is a real issue here, and not just an attempt to embarrass the president by pulling out an obscure bit of 18th-century law. Saudi Arabia was the first stop on Mr. Trump’s first visit abroad, and there he announced major arms sales, including weapons his predecessor had declined to provide the Kingdom. The president also publicly sided with the Saudis and Bahrain in a dispute with Qatar, despite substantial American interests in maintaining a military base there.

Georgia, wary of being subsumed directly or effectively by Russia, has an existential interest in currying favor with our Putin-friendly president. 

The justice department, in response to an earlier suit, argued that what he’s doing is no different from dealings President George Washington selling agricultural products overseas or President Barack Obama receiving royalties from copies of his books held in foreign libraries. That is absurd. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, Mr. Trump has turned the presidency into a profit center for his private business, and he has prevented the public from knowing the extent of his conflicts. That is something no president has done, and none ever should.

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