Judge says Maryland's case against President Trump's business dealings may proceed

WASHINGTON — A federal judge denied a second request by lawyers for President Donald J. Trump on Wednesday to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Maryland's attorney general alleging that Trump has violated the constitutional prohibition on gaining financially from his position by doing business with foreign governments.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte rejected challenges from the president’s attorneys that Attorney General Brian E. Frosh had failed to state an adequate legal claim.

The ruling means the case, which centers on foreign dignitaries paying to stay at the luxury Trump International Hotel in Washington, may proceed. It also means the Trump Organization could be required to disclose sensitive documents during the discovery phase.

“We are entitled to know every payment the president received from a foreign government, from a state government — whatever benefits he received,” Frosh said. “That could include financing.”

Frosh filed the suit with District of Columbia Attorney General Karl A. Racine in June 2017. Both are Democrats; Trump is a Republican.

Frosh and Racine say Trump’s ownership of a business that accepts money from foreign governments violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

“This is an historic decision,” Frosh said. “Those clauses prohibit receipts of gifts from foreign governments. Nobody else has walked close to that line.”

The Justice Department said it would continue to defend the president.

“We continue to maintain that this case should be dismissed, a position that was shared by a New York court in a related case,” department spokesman Andy Reuss said. “The Justice Department is reviewing the order and determining next steps to continue vigorously defending the President.”

Frosh said the case is particularly important to the public because Trump has declined to make his tax returns public. That’s a break from tradition, but violates no laws.

“The lack of transparency has heightened concerns about the impact of payments he is receiving from foreign governments,” Frosh said. “He can dispel that by opening his tax returns and books and records.”

The judge gave the sides 21 days to propose “what the general outline of any proposed discovery should be.”

In discovery, each side can request that the other answer specific questions or produce documents.

The White House declined to comment.

Maryland and the District of Columbia are seeking an injunction prohibiting future violations of the emoluments clause. The judge wrote that the plaintiffs “have stated viable causes of actions.”

The framers of the Constitution adopted the emoluments clause out of concern that foreign heads of state could exert influence over the president or other federal officials.

Central to the case is the meaning of the word.

Maryland has argued for a broad definition covering “profit,” “gain,” or “advantage.”

Trump’s attorneys say the clause does not apply to his business. They have cited dictionary definitions of the term as payments made over and above an official’s employment salary.

The federal judge said Maryland and Washington “convincingly” made the case for the broader definition.

The president’s narrow interpretation, Messitte wrote, “would reduce the clauses to little more than a prohibition of bribery, which, in addition to already being addressed elsewhere in the Constiution, is, as plaintiffs argue, a very difficult crime to prove.”

Trump said before his inauguration that that leadership of the Trump Organization would be turned over to his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and that profits from foreign governments would be submitted to the U.S. Treasury.

“However, following his inauguration and as of the date of the filing of this action, the president had made no such ‘donations’ to the U.S. Treasury,” the judge wrote.

Since Trump’s election, the court said, “a number of foreign governments or their instrumentalities have patronized or have expressed a definite intention to patronize the hotel, some of which have indicated that they are doing so precisely because of the president’s association with it.”

At least one state — Maine — patronized the hotel when its governor and others visited the president and other officials in 2017.

In March, the judge declined to dismiss the case after the Justice Department argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue because they could not clearly show how their residents had been harmed by the payments.

Maryland has said its commercial interests — such as competing hotels — could be harmed by any advantage the Trump hotel enjoys through its association with the president.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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