Good news: A federal judge breathes new life into D.C. and Maryland’s emoluments suit against Trump

Hotels Catalogue / Flickr Trump International Washington DC Hotel Overview...
Hotels Catalogue / Flickr

Last June, the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland filed suit against President Donald J. Trump for violating constitutional prohibitions against accepting gifts or benefits from other governments, including state governments, referred to as the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses.

On Thursday, Judge Peter Messitte, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, heard initial arguments from the Justice Department and D.C. and Maryland’s AGs. Consensus is, he’s open to what D.C. and Maryland have to say.

The complaint … says in part that the Trump International Hotel in Washington diverts customers from businesses that the District of Columbia or Maryland license, tax or own, depriving them of revenue. Lawyers for the plaintiffs urged Judge Messitte to allow the case to proceed to discovery and allow them to obtain financial records of Mr. Trump’s Washington hotel.

An earlier effort to hold Trump accountable for accepting emoluments in court augured poorly for this line of argument. A New York federal district court judge, Judge George Daniels, accepted the Justice Department’s argument that the Emoluments Clause should be enforced through political rather than judicial means and declined to permit a trial.

In his decision last month, Judge Daniels said it was up to Congress, not the courts, to decide whether Mr. Trump had illegally accepted any valuable benefits, such as trademark approvals, from foreign governments. And if Mr. Trump’s businesses had profited because consumers are more interested in patronizing Trump-owned hotels or golf courses in the United States since his election, Judge Daniels said, the president was not to blame.

Judge Messitte, by contrast, promises to be a harder sell for the federal government.

Judge Messitte seemed more sympathetic to claims by attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland that the president had created an unfair playing field for convention centers and other facilities that compete against Trump-owned properties. “The argument is that as president he is unduly attracting business,” the judge said. “There is some evidence of that.”

In fact, Messitte was outright critical—so far as judicial commentary goes—of the Justice Department’s tactics.

Judge Messitte also suggested that the Justice Department was demanding too much proof too early of claims by the District of Columbia and Maryland governments that they had sustained monetary losses because Mr. Trump had failed to give up his ownership of hotels and other businesses. “You are asking for very specific losses,” he said.

Merely proceeding to discovery would be a huge win for D.C., Maryland, and every American who favors accountability—and the Constitution. 


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