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Federal judge rejects motion to dismiss Md. emoluments case

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2016 file photo, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

The Trump International Hotel in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON — A federal judge Wednesday allowed Maryland and the District of Columbia to proceed with their lawsuit accusing President Donald Trump of accepting unconstitutional gifts from foreign interests, but limited the case to the president’s involvement with the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte’s ruling dismissed other sections of the lawsuit that raised concerns about the impact of foreign gifts to the president from Trump Organization properties outside of Washington.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh hailed Messitte’s decision keeping the lawsuit alive.

“Donald Trump is not above the law,” Frosh said. “We can hold him accountable. We intend to do that.”

Frosh, a Democrat like D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, said the litigation is about the rule of law and not a political attack
against a Republican president.

“This is a lawsuit that seeks to uphold the core principles of the Constitution,” Frosh said, noting that the Emoluments Clause’s purpose is to prevent presidential profiteering. “It is hardly political.”

The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution bans the president and other federal officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments as well as U.S. states. The lawsuit brought by Maryland and D.C. alleges nearby businesses have been subjected to increased competition as a result of the foreign traffic to the Trump Hotel.

“Their allegation is bolstered by explicit statements from certain foreign government officials indicating that they are clearly choosing to stay at the president’s hotel because, as one representative of a foreign government has stated, they want him to know ‘I love your new hotel,'” Messitte wrote in his 47-page ruling.

But the judge also warned the plaintiffs that their “claims sweep too broadly,” saying “it is a considerable stretch, however, to find the requisite injury-in-fact” to Maryland and D.C. from Trump properties outside of Washington.

Maryland’s claim to standing rested on the argument that Trump’s Washington properties took business away from the MGM National Harbor Hotel — from which the state derives gambling proceeds — and the Montgomery County Convention Center, part of the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel and in which the state has a direct financial interest.

Messitte said the MGM Hotel did not give the state standing because Trump’s D.C. holdings do not have gambling and thus do not compete. But Messitte said the convention center does compete with the Trump properties, thus giving the state standing.

Despite Messitte’s limited ruling, a watchdog group that has joined the two jurisdictions in the lawsuit was quick to hail the judge’s decision.

“This is a major step forward for the emoluments litigation,” said Norman Eisen, a former chief ethics lawyer for the Obama administration and chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Eisen said the decision suggests states and businesses near Trump enterprises in other parts of the country may also have legal standing to sue.

It was not immediately clear whether the Trump administration would appeal the ruling.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to address the ruling during an afternoon press briefing, saying “I can’t comment on pending litigation.”

Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said “we believe this case should be dismissed, and we will continue to defend the president in court.”

Although the Trump Organization was not a party in the litigation, the company said it was pleased that the judge did not allow the lawsuit to target other Trump properties.

“The court’s decision today does significantly narrow the scope of the case,” said a company spokeswoman. The court has yet to rule on several additional arguments, which we believe should result in a complete dismissal.”

The case is The District of Columbia and the State of Maryland v. Donald J. Trump, No. 8:17-cv-01596-PJM.

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