This morning, the attorneys general for both the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia filed a federal lawsuit against President Donald Trump, accusing him of violating the so-called “emoluments clauses” of the U.S. Constitution by continuing to own his various business hotel, restaurant, golf, and real estate ventures. But what are the exact allegations being brought in this case?
Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution is the foreign emoluments clause. It states:
“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
In other words, the President can’t accept money or gifts from foreign countries without Congressional approval.
The domestic emoluments clause is found in Article II, Section 1, where it explains that the President is paid for their time in office, but that this compensation “shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.”
Basically, the President gets paid what they are supposed to get paid, and the government doesn’t sweeten the arrangement with more money or gifts.
In the complaint filed today in a federal court in Greenbelt, MD, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland AG Brian Frosh lay out their argument for why they believe the President has violated both of these clauses by refusing to relinquish his ownership of his business interests or establish a blind trust.
The lawsuit focuses on a number of Trump-owned or operated properties, primarily in D.C. and New York City, where the AGs contend he is receiving money from foreign officials and governments.
Here’s a breakdown of the various ways in which the lawsuit claims the President is violating the emoluments clauses.
1. Foreign Money At Trump International Hotel
This building, which opened shortly before the 2016 election, is effectively the centerpiece of the lawsuit. With regard to allegations of foreign emoluments, the complaint says that the property — only blocks from the White House — has been marketed itself specifically to the many foreign diplomats in D.C.
“On one occasion, barely a week after the election, it held an event where it pitched the hotel to about 100 foreign diplomats,” notes the complaint, which also points out that Trump International has a director of diplomatic sales “to facilitate business with foreign states and their diplomats and agents.”
The complaint cites multiple examples of foreign governments paying for events at Trump’s D.C. location. There was the Feb. 22 party held by the Embassy of Kuwait. The lawsuit claims that this event had previously been scheduled to take place at the Four Seasons hotel, but that it was later moved to Trump’s hotel after the election.
The AGs also point to the approximately $270,000 in lodging, parking, and catering paid for by the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between Oct. 2016 and March 2017. The Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Georgia to the United Nations, also stayed at the hotel in April, according to the lawsuit.
While President Trump had pledged that all profits — at the D.C. Hotel and others — from foreign governments would be donated to the Treasury, NBC News confirmed in May that the Trump Corporation has not been keeping precise track of such payments and is instead merely estimating these amounts.
“To attempt to individually track and distinctly attribute certain business-related costs as specifically identifiable to a particular customer group is not practical,” reads a Trump Corporation pamphlet, according to NBC.
The lawsuit claims that Trump’s promises to donate profits or put his earnings into a separate account are not material with regard to the foreign emoluments clause, as the President “remains owner of approximately 77.5% of the Trump Old Post Office LLC (the remaining shares are owned by three of his children), and thereby benefits from any amounts deposited into the unrecovered capital contribution account.”
2. Trump International’s Lease
The D.C. property also causes concerns with regard to the domestic emoluments clause, according to the lawsuit, as the Trump company that runs the building does not own the structure. Instead, it has a lease from the federal government. That lease pre-dates Trump’s election campaign, but it does state that no “elected official of the Government of the United States… shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
Before Trump’s inauguration, the Deputy Commissioner of the General Services Administration told lawmakers that Trump would be in violation of the lease unless he “fully divests himself of all financial interests in the lease.” However, in March 2017 the President’s appointed GSA Director declared that Mr. Trump “is in full compliance” with that contract.
The lawsuit argues that by not enforcing the GSA contract, “the federal government has given the defendant an emolument in violation of the Domestic Emoluments Clause.”
The Trump-owned company that runs the hotel is also currently seeking a $32 million historic preservation tax credit for the building, housed in the historic Old Post Office. Problem is, claim the AGs, that the agency that approves such credits is the National Park Service, which ultimately falls under the direction of the White House.
“If final approval is granted, it may constitute an emolument,” argues the lawsuit.
3. The Chinese Bank In Trump Tower
In New York City, much of the fuss about Trump Tower has been about the traffic snarls and additional costs to the city because of street closures and security around the building. But for this lawsuit, the focus is more on one of the tower’s commercial tenants: The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), a financial institution whose majority owner is the Chinese government.
ICBC has had offices in the Trump Tower since before the election, but the AGs argue that the President is violating the emoluments clause by continuing to accept money from the bank. Additionally, the bank’s current lease expires in 2019, while Trump will still be in the Oval Office. This is problematic, claims the lawsuit, because that means the Chinese government will be negotiating rent with a sitting President of the United States.
4. Government Promotion Of Mar-A-Lago
President Trump has been criticized for his not-infrequent weekend trips to his home at Mar-A-Lago, the Florida resort he owns. But it’s not the cost or time spent golfing that are central to the AG’s lawsuit. Instead, it’s the recent promotion of Mar-A-Lago on websites run by the State Departments and U.S. embassies.
“This post advertising Mar-a-Lago has since been removed,” notes the complaint, “but not before substantive, world-wide advertising of the defendant’s private property, using government resources, had occurred.”
5. Foreign Dignitaries At Trump World Tower
Across town from Trump Tower is this building next to the United Nations. A number of the tenants in Trump World Tower are foreign governments. Saudi Arabia purchased an entire floor of the building for $4.5 million and pays annual fees to the Trump Corporation of at least $89,000. As the lawsuit notes, the floor bought by the Saudis isn’t residential but user as the Saudi Mission to the United Nations.
Likewise, the Permanent Missions of India, Afghanistan, and Qatar have each paid millions to purchase units in the World Tower, while continuing to pay substantial common fees to Trump. Additionally, the bar at World Tower is frequented by officials of foreign governments, meaning money from countries other than those with units in the building could be going to the President’s company.
6. The Apprentice Overseas
There’s nothing inherently unconstitutional about the President continuing to earn royalties or remaining an executive producer of various international editions of The Apprentice, but the lawsuit alleges that it runs afoul of the foreign emoluments clause when President Trump is earning that money from deals with government-owned TV networks.
The lawsuit does not allege that any foreign or domestic groups have used these alleged emoluments to exert undue influence on the White House; just that they are in violation of some of the most basic core tenets of the Constitution.
“Irrespective of whether such benefits affect the President’s decision-making or shift his foreign or domestic policy, uncertainty about whether the President is acting in the best interests of the American people, or rather for his own ends or personal enrichment, inflicts lasting harm on our democracy,” reads the lawsuit. “The Framers of the Constitution foresaw that possibility, and acted to prevent that harm.”