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Federal judge: Md.’s emoluments claim against Trump can proceed

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2016 file photo, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. An electrical subcontractor who worked on the Trump International Hotel in Washington has sued a company owned by President Donald Trump for more than $2 million, alleging it was not fully paid. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

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

Maryland and the District of Columbia can pursue their lawsuit alleging corruption by President Donald Trump in the handling of his hotel property in Washington, as a federal judge said Wednesday the Constitution’s bar on presidential acceptance of “emoluments” must be read broadly.

In permitting the lawsuit to proceed, Judge Peter J. Messitte said emoluments refers to any “profit, gain or advantage” Trump allegedly derived from state or foreign governments or diplomats who visited or stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Messitte rejected arguments for dismissal from U.S. Justice Department attorneys defending Trump, who said an emolument is limited to a bribe or an employment wage from a foreign or domestic government – not money paid in a “private commercial transaction” such as a hotel fee paid by a guest at a property owner by the president.

“The court is satisfied, consistent with the text and the original public meaning of the term ‘emolument,’ that the historical record reflects that the framers were acutely aware of and concerned about the potential for foreign or domestic influence of any sort over the president,” Messitte wrote in his memorandum opinion. “An ‘emolument” within the meaning of the (foreign and domestic) Emoluments Clauses was intended to reach beyond simple payment for services rendered by a federal official in his official capacity, which in effect would merely restate a prohibition against bribery. The term was intended to embrace and ban anything more than de minimis profit, gain, or advantage offered to a public official in his private capacity as well, wholly apart from his official salary.”

Domestically, the Emoluments Clause permits the president to collect a salary but bars him from receiving “any other emolument” from the United States or any state or to accept “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state” without congressional consent.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Karl A. Racine, his D.C. counterpart, allege Trump violated the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause by diverting business from other hotels in Maryland and Washington to his own property, a claim Messitte said will proceed under the founding document’s anti-corruption provision.

“Where, for example, a president maintains a premier hotel property that generates millions of dollars a year in profits, how likely is it that he will not be swayed, whether consciously or subconsciously, in any or all of his dealings with foreign or domestic governments that might choose to spend large sums of money at that hotel property,” Messitte, who sits at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, wrote in his memorandum opinion. “How, indeed, could it ever be proven, in a given case, that he had actually been influenced by the payments? The framers of the [foreign and domestic Emoluments] Clauses made it simple. Ban the offerings altogether (unless, in the foreign context at least, Congress sees fit to approve them).”

‘Historic’ ruling

Frosh, in a statement, praised Messitte’s “historic” ruling.

“We now look forward to proceeding with discovery and litigating the merits of this case,” Frosh said. “Americans shouldn’t have to question whether their president is making decisions in their best interest rather than his own. Americans deserve a president who serves the people not his bottom line.”

In a statement, Racine said “325 million Americans shouldn’t have to wonder if the president is putting his personal financial interests ahead of the national interest.”

Frosh and Racine, both Democrats, contend Trump has unconstitutionally profited from leases of Trump properties by foreign-government-owned entities; the use by foreign governments and diplomats of accommodations, restaurant purchases and venues for events at Trump International Hotel and his other facilities; the purchase and ownership of condominiums in Trump properties by foreign governments;  and the stay by at least one  governor – Maine’s Paul LePage – and his entourage at the Washington hotel, as well as the continuation of the U.S. General Services Administration’s lease at that property.

Trump’s alleged violations specifically harm Maryland and D.C.’s capacity as proprietors of businesses that compete with the president’s holdings, the attorneys general contend in their complaint.

Frosh and Racine seek a declaratory judgment from the federal court that Trump has violated the Emoluments Clause, an order that he stop and any other relief that the court deems “just and proper.”

Trump, a Republican, has denied the allegations.

Frosh filed the lawsuit under authority Maryland’s Democratic-run General Assembly gave to him last year by joint resolution to sue Trump without the approval of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

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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