Judge denies Trump request to stay emoluments suit, could allow plaintiffs to seek details on hotel’s foreign customers
By Jonathan O'Connell and Ann E. Marimow and David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post|
Nov 02, 2018 | 7:29 PM
A federal judge on Friday denied President Donald Trump's request to stay a lawsuit alleging he is violating the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments, a decision that paves the way for plaintiffs to seek information about customers at his District of Columbia hotel.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Greenbelt, Maryland, denied the Justice Department's request that he pause the case to allow a higher court to intervene. And Messitte sharply questioned the president's position that his business does not improperly accept gifts or payments - called emoluments - as defined by the Constitution.
By Trump's analysis, Messitte wrote, the term emoluments is the subject of such "substantial grounds of disagreement" that payments his business received from foreign governments could not qualify. The judge did not agree: "The Court finds this a dubious proposition."
Messitte ordered the plaintiffs, the attorneys general for the District and Maryland, to submit a schedule for discovery - the process of producing evidence for the case - within 20 days. That decision is subject to appeal.
The judge has limited discovery to information related to the president's District. hotel. This is the second civil case in which Trump's business is now subject to discovery, after Trump agreed Tuesday to produce portions of his calendar from 2007 and 2008 in a defamation lawsuit brought by former "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos.
In his 31-page opinion, Messitte rejected Trump's argument that this case should be halted so it could be appealed midstream - a request typically granted in extraordinary circumstances, where an unresolved legal question makes it hard to go on.
Justice Department attorneys argued that the lawsuit should ultimately be dismissed because it was a burden for Trump, distracting from his duties as a sitting president. The department issued a statement signaling it would appeal again.
"The Department of Justice disagrees with and is disappointed by this ruling," said spokeswoman Kelly Laco. "This case, which should have been dismissed, presents important questions that warrant immediate appellate review."
The Trump Organization did not immediately return requests for comment.
The Justice Department "is attempting to delay discovery in our case," said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, D, who brought the case along with D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, D. "Their ultimate argument was that this the president of the United States, he's too busy."
But Messitte had rejected that argument earlier, and in this opinion he noted, wryly, that - instead of avoiding legal battles - Trump seems to seek them out while in the White House.
Messitte noted Trump's threats to sue author Michael Wolff and former adviser Stephen Bannon, and Trump's taunting of former CIA director William Brennan in August. After Trump revoked Brennan's security clearance, Trump wrote on Twitter: "I hope John Brennan, the worst CIA Director in our country's history, brings a lawsuit."
"It bears noting that the President himself seems to have had little reluctance to pursue personal litigation despite the supposed distractions it imposes on his office," Messitte wrote.
Trump still owns his company, although he says he has stepped back from day-to-day control. The Trump Organization has held several large events paid for by foreign governments at Trump's District hotel and reported about $150,000 in what it called "foreign profits" last year.
The judge found that, "the President's ownership interest in the Trump International Hotel and his apparent receipt of benefits from at least some foreign and state governments, as well as from the Federal Government itself, suggest that he has received 'emoluments' in violation of the Constitution."
In an earlier ruling, Messitte had found that the definition of word emoluments, in the context of the late 1700s, was broad enough to include sales of goods or services. By the judge's logic, that definition meant that Trump could be taking emoluments merely by renting ballrooms to foreign-government customers.
Trump had objected, saying that the word should be defined more narrowly, to mean only payments made to Trump specifically to influence his behavior as president.
"By every reasonable metric, [Trump's definition] appears to describe what is tantamount to a bribe," the judge wrote in the Friday decision, calling that interpretation"exceedingly strained."
Trump's legal team has some options to prevent discovery from proceeding, but they are dwindling. The judge directed Frosh and Racine to submit a schedule for discovery within 20 days.
"We will soon provide the court a new schedule to begin the process of getting information about how President Trump is profiting from the presidency," Racine said in a statement.
Frosh and Racine will seek details about spending at Trump's D.C. hotel by foreign governments, state governments and the federal government. They want to look inside the finances of Trump's company to see how money flows through individual Trump businesses to Trump.
They also want to seek information from Trump on "his communications with foreign, state and domestic government officials" regarding the District hotel. And they want information about Trump's lease with the federal government, as his District hotel is located in a federally owned historic building, which Trump leased long before he ran for office.
Trump's lawyers have asked for their own discovery - demanding details about whether the District or Maryland governments have been harmed, financially, by foreign-government customers leaving other hotels for Trump's.
The Washington Post's Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.