Maryland and the District of Columbia have plausibly alleged that President Donald Trump’s potential receipt of payments from foreign and domestic governments to the Trump International Hotel violates the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, a Maryland federal judge found Wednesday in a landmark ruling.
Washington, D.C., and Maryland had “convincingly argued” that the term “emolument” as specified in the Constitution means any “profit, gain or advantage,” and therefore had plausibly claimed the president violated the two constitutional emoluments clauses, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte ruled in rejecting the president’s narrower definition and refusing to dismiss the suit. The decision is likely the first time a court has ever defined the term.
“The court agrees with the parties that the term ‘emolument’ must be read in harmony with the surrounding text of the emoluments clauses [as Trump had argued],” Judge Messitte said. “But ultimately it finds plaintiffs’ arguments more persuasive. The text of both clauses strongly indicates that the broader meaning of ‘emolument’ advanced by plaintiffs was meant to apply.”
The foreign emoluments clause prevents anyone “holding any office of profit or trust” from accepting titles, emoluments or offices from any foreign state or monarch, unless explicitly approved by Congress, while the domestic emoluments clause prevents any president from receiving any emolument from the U.S. beyond a standard salary.
D.C. and Maryland claim that Trump’s ownership stake in the Trump Organization and therefore in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., violated those clauses because the hotel is patronized by both foreign and domestic government officials.
Underlying the whole dispute is the definition of “emolument,” which D.C. and Maryland argued is meant to be broad, encompassing any “profit,” “gain” or “advantage,” citing definitions in place at the time of the drafting of the Constitution.
Maryland and D.C. are represented by Karl A. Racine, Stephanie E. Litos and Natalie O. Ludaway of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Brian E. Frosh, Steven M. Sullivan and Leah J. Tulin of the Office of Attorney General for the State of Maryland, Noah D. Bookbinder, Norman L. Eisen and Stuart C. McPhail of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Joseph M. Sellers and Christine E. Webber of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and Deepak Gupta and Jonathan Taylor of Gupta Wessler PLLC.
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