A federal judge on Wednesday rejected President Trump’s latest effort to stop a lawsuit that alleges Trump is violating the Constitution by continuing to do business with foreign governments.
The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt, Md., will allow the plaintiffs in the case — the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia — to proceed with their case, which says Trump has violated the Constitution’s little-used emoluments clause.
The plaintiffs now want to interview Trump Organization employees and search company records to determine which foreign countries have spent money at Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington.
The Justice Department and Trump’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They could try to appeal the decision to a higher court and ask Messitte not to allow the attorneys general access to Trump Organization employees and books until the appeal is decided.
The lawsuit, filed last year by D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), cleared an initial hurdle in March. Back then, Messitte settled one legal question, ruling that the plaintiffs had legal standing to sue the president in the first place.
He also limited the scope of the case to Trump’s Washington hotel; previously, the plaintiffs had also wanted to search for foreign-government spending at other Trump properties as well.
The next unsettled questions: What, exactly is an emolument?
That was a question that remained unanswered for more than 200 years.
The Constitution bars federal officials from taking emoluments from any “King, Prince, or Foreign State.” The Founding Fathers’ intent had been to stop U.S. ambassadors overseas — emissaries from a new, poor, fragile country — from being bought off by jewels or payments from wealthy European states.
But the modern meaning of the clause had not been settled because most presidents — acting on the advice of their attorneys — had steered clear of business entanglements while in office.
If the plaintiffs are allowed to conduct “discovery” at Trump’s hotel — examining its books to identify its foreign customers — that could require the president to provide more detailed information about his personal finances. Trump broke with presidential tradition when he refused to make public his tax returns.
The plaintiffs in this case said last month that, through the discovery process, they would try to gain access to Trump’s tax returns, which detail the functions of his businesses as well as his personal spending.
Before Trump took office, his company said it would donate all “foreign profits” collected by the business to the federal treasury. At the end of last year, the Trump Organization said it donated $151,470 in February. But it declined to explain the details behind that number — giving no information about which countries those profits came from or what the Trump Organization’s total revenue from foreign governments had been.
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Cohen Milstein represents the Attorneys General of Maryland and the District of Columbia in this lawsuit.