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A left-leaning ethics watchdog group in Washington on Monday filed the first major federal lawsuit against President Donald Trump, suing him over what it believes is a violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
The constitutional provision prohibits government officials from receiving payments from foreign governments. It has not previously been tested in court against a US president.
“These violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause pose a grave threat to the United States and its citizens,” the lawsuit from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, said. “As the framers were aware, private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders, and entanglements between American officials and foreign powers could pose a creeping, insidious threat to the Republic.”
“The Foreign Emoluments Clause was forged of the framers’ hard-won wisdom,” the lawsuit added. “It is no relic of a bygone era, but rather an expression of insight into the nature of the human condition and the preconditions of self-governance. And applied to Donald J. Trump’s diverse dealings, the text and purpose of the Foreign Emoluments Clause speak as one: This cannot be allowed.”
During a brief appearance in the Oval Office on Monday, Trump said the lawsuit was “totally without merit.”
A spokesperson said Trump resigned from his business empire on Monday, and, in a press conference earlier this month, Trump said he would donate all profits generated by members of foreign governments staying at his hotels to the US Treasury. However, he did not say all payments, nor did he divest himself entirely of his business empire or place it into a blind trust. The full extent of his business empire is not fully known of because he has refused to release his tax returns.
Trump announced that he would turn over control of his business to his two adult sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., in addition to a top Trump Organization executive, and that he would step down from his official roles.
The lawsuit alleges that various Trump properties, including Trump Tower in New York and the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, are in violation of the Emoluments Clause, in addition to business ventures in Scotland, Turkey, Russia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates.
CREW will be represented in the case by a fleet of top ethics experts, including Norman Eisen, who served as the top ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama, and Richard Painter, who served as a top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
Eisen said in a press release that the lawsuit will seek to have Trump provide his tax returns, which the president has continued to insist is going through a routine IRS audit, preventing him from releasing them. Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, said Sunday that the tax returns would never be released but walked back the statement later, claiming that they are still under audit.
“President Trump is the first president in decades not to release his tax returns,” Eisen said in the release. “We will seek those in discovery in this case in order to establish the details of the emoluments clause violations here.”
Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School who is also representing CREW in the case, said that “nothing short of judicial force will end Trump’s flagrant disregard” of the Emoluments Clause.
During Trump’s press conference earlier this month, Sheri Dillon, a partner at Morgan Lewis who was serving as Trump’s counsel on his business entanglements, said that many were viewing the Emoluments Clause inaccurately.
“These people are wrong,” she said. “That is not what the Constitution says.”
She said the clause would not apply to something like a foreign government official paying to stay at a Trump hotel.
“It’s never been interpreted to mean fair-value exchanges. … No one would’ve thought that paying your hotel bill was an emolument,” she said. “Instead, it would’ve been thought of as a fair-value exchange, not a gift or an emolument.”
Contacted on Sunday by The New York Times, Eric Trump said the lawsuit was “sad.”
“This is purely harassment for political gain, and, frankly, I find it very, very sad,” he told The Times.