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DC, Maryland attorneys general sue Trump over payments to his businesses

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The Trump International Hotel under construction on March 6, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs/CNP/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia sued President Donald J. Trump on Monday, arguing he has violated constitutional prohibitions on accepting gifts from foreign and state governments.

The lawsuit — which comes days after the Justice Department defended the ability of Trump’s real estate empire to accept those payments in a separate, similar case — alleges that the president has violated the Emoluments Clause by accepting millions of dollars in payments on properties his company owns.

Attorneys General Brian E. Frosh of Maryland and Karl A. Racine of Washington — both Democrats — filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Maryland. It is the first time a state government has sued Trump over the issue, though the litigation is similar to a case filed in January by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington-based watchdog group.

“It’s unprecedented that the American people must question day after day whether decisions are made and actions are taken to benefit the United States or to benefit Donald Trump,” Frosh said during a news conference here on Monday. “The president’s conflicts of interest threaten our country.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The lawsuit comes months after state lawmakers in Annapolis gave Frosh broad authority to bypass the governor and sue the federal government on a range of issues. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, declined to sign the related measure providing funding and staff for Frosh’s efforts, letting it become law without his signature.

The attorneys general allege that Trump violated the Constitution through leases of Trump properties held by foreign governments as well as by allowing foreign governments buying condominiums and hotel rooms in properties owned by the Trump organization, including the Trump hotel in downtown Washington.

“President Trump’s continued ownership interest in a global business empire, which renders him deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors, violates the Constitution and calls into question the rule of law and the integrity of the country’s political system,” according to the lawsuit

Designed to limit the potential for corrupting influences, the framers included language in the Constitution that said “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.”

The domestic Emoluments Clause says presidents will receive payment for their time in the White House and may not receive payment or “any other emolument from the United States, or any of them.”

Establishing standing — or proving that a plaintiff was harmed by the defendant’s actions — could prove to be particularly challenging the case. Maryland and the District argue in the lawsuit that Trump’s actions harm their “sovereign interests.” The lawsuit rests on the idea that states that do business with Trump’s company could receive special treatment from the federal government, though the lawsuit does not cite an example of that occurrence.

The litigation, first reported by The Washington Post, also suggests that states that refuse to grant Trump zoning variances or development tax credits on his company’s properties, for instance, could be punished by the White House. The lawsuit also does not cite an example of that taking place in Maryland, where the Trump organization is registered to do business but does not have major holdings.

The attorneys general write that MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County and the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Montgomery County have been put at a competitive disadvantage by the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

“The District and Maryland are harmed by perceived and/or actual pressure to grant special treatment to the defendant and his extensive affiliated enterprises, or else be placed at a disadvantage vis-a-vis other states and governments that have granted or will grant such special treatment,” the lawsuit reads.

“The District and Maryland have an interest in protecting their economies and their residents, who, as the defendant’s local competitors, are injured by decreased business, wages, and tips resulting from economic and commercial activity diverted to the defendant and his business enterprises due to his ongoing constitutional violations,” it continues.

In a separate case filed by the Washington watchdog group in January, the Justice Department argued Friday that the group was not harmed and was not in a position to sue. The attorneys also said that the group had defined “emoluments” too broadly.

A prohibited foreign payment, they wrote, “must be conferred on the covered official in his or her official capacity or must arise from services rendered to a foreign state by the covered official.”

Trump said in January he would turn over the day-to-day operation of his real estate empire to his family and place its assets in a trust, but the administration has not disclosed the details of that
arrangement. In April, documents reviewed by ProPublica demonstrated that the president may continue to receive payments from the trust at his discretion.
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