A judge ruled in favor of 198 Democratic senators and representatives on Friday in their effort to sue President Donald Trump for the benefits he receives from his business entanglements with foreign governments without having obtained majority approval from both chambers of Congress. These rewards includes profits from fees paid to hotels, trademarks awarded by other governments, sales of property, and other business transactions.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan said that the members of Congress had standing, or a legal right to sue, because they had shown enough evidence that the president had violated a Constitutional restriction, and that lawmakers had been harmed by that violation.
His decision doesn’t settle the suit brought in Washington, D.C., but allows it to forward to determine an outcome in court.
Multiple suits have alleged that Trump has violated one or both clauses in the Constitution that forbid “emoluments,” or the acceptance of some kind of reward, profit, or advantage. In this case, the suit points to the Title of Nobility Clause, which says that only Congress can authorize any officeholder to receive an emolument from a foreign power. The founding document doesn’t specify penalties or punishment.
While Trump handed over control of the Trump Organization to his two oldest sons, he maintains a direct financial interest and routinely visits his properties and speaks about them in official settings. His hotel in D.C. in particular has reportedly received substantial additional business from foreign governments, which accrue to the president as profit. The business has also sold real estate outside the United States to foreign governments
The Trump Organization said it would donate profits to the U.S. Treasury to sidestep this emoluments issue, and made its first donation in February 2018. However, the firm hasn’t released an accounting or any details about how it made the determination of the amount.
In July, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia could proceed in a separate lawsuit specifically targeting profits from the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and relying both a domestic emolument clause that prohibits a president from receiving any salary above that of his office and the foreign clause. The Department of Justice has appealed the judge’s decision to allow this case to proceed.
Other emoluments suits brought by individuals and businesses have been dismissed.
These clauses have never been tested against a president, and the outcome is unclear. Should Trump lose in either or both lawsuits, he could be ordered by a judge to stop receiving emoluments, divest holdings, or repay money, among other outcomes.