As if Donald Trump didn’t have enough legal problems, a federal judge added another one yesterday, this time involving the chief executive’s restaurant, banquet and hotel operations. The justice ruled that the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland can sue the president for allegedly accepting “emoluments,” or unsanctioned personal presents from foreign governments.
The alleged “gifts” were meals, banquets and room nights provided at the usual price levels by Trump’s hotels, which are now run at arm’s distance from the Oval Office by the former businessman’s adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr. The Constitution forbids the president from accepting personal enrichments without the approval of Congress. The attorneys general of the district and Maryland had jointly filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of illegally profiting every time a foreign dignitary gave business to a Trump Organization hotel.
They contended that the businesses and citizens of Washington and its neighboring state were being financially hurt by the undue advantage Trump’s properties enjoy, since customers may expect the business they provide to earn them favor in the White House.
Accusations of Trump hotels having an undue advantage were also leveled in lawsuits filed roughly a year ago, one by Cork Wine Bar, an independent restaurant in Washington, D.C., and the other by a watchdog group, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a labor advocacy force, later added its name to the latter acton.
Attorneys for the president's business have argued there are no grounds for the lawsuits because Congress has long been regarded as the policing body for emoluments, an arcane term that has seldom figured into public discourse since the Founding Fathers used it at least twice in the Constitution. They contended that resolution of any suspected emolument should remain the responsibility of the legislative branch, and the president cannot be accused in court of having a conflict of interest.
Judge Peter Messitte of the U.S. District Court of Maryland rejected that argument yesterday, saying the action by Maryland and the district can proceed. But he narrowed the scope of allegations to possible transgressions at just one Trump hotel, the Trump International in Washington, D.C.
“Maryland and District of Columbia residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, or dine at the hotel rather than at comparable Maryland or District of Columbia establishments, in whole or in substantial part simply because of the president's association with it," he wrote.
The situation arises from Trump’s decision to hold onto his businesses after becoming president, a break from the tradition of divesting most holdings or putting them in a blind trust.
In January, the president said he would alleviate concerns by donating all profits generated by foreign business to charities.
One of the two other emoluments lawsuits was reportedly dropped in December, and proceedings on the second have yet to begin.
The ruling by Messitte comes as the president and the White House are embroiled in a number of legal disputes involving women who allege they were the targets of sexual advances by Trump before he was elected president. The chief executive has asserted he had no relations with the women.
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.