WASHINGTON —Democrats in Congress can move ahead with their lawsuit against President Trump alleging that his private business violates the Constitution’s ban on gifts or payments from foreign governments, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
The decision in Washington from US District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan adopted a broad definition of the anticorruption ban and could set the stage for Democratic lawmakers to begin seeking information from the Trump Organization. The Justice Department can try to delay or block the process by asking an appeals court to intervene.
The lawsuit is one of two landmark cases against Trump relying on the once-obscure emoluments clauses of the Constitution.
In a case brought in Maryland by the attorneys general of D.C. and Maryland, Justice Department lawyers representing the president have succeeded in temporarily blocking subpoenas for financial records and other documents related to Trump’s D.C. hotel.
The congressional case, brought by about 200 Democrats, extends beyond the hotel and provides a potential new avenue for the president’s challengers to gain access to a broader array of Trump’s closely held finances.
In a 48-page opinion, the judge refused the request of the president’s legal team to dismiss the case and rejected Trump’s narrow definition of emoluments, finding it “unpersuasive and inconsistent.”
Trump’s lawyers argued that the clause applies only to payments received for government action taken by a president in his official capacity. The clause, they argue, should not be considered a blanket prohibition on private business transactions with foreign governments.
Sullivan noted that without seeking permission from Congress, the president has received payments for hotel rooms and events from foreign governments, as well as licensing fees paid by foreign governments for his show “The Apprentice” and intellectual property rights from China.
The emoluments cases, which could eventually end up at the Supreme Court, appear to mark the first time that federal judges have interpreted these clauses and applied their restrictions to a sitting president. The lawsuits were early arrivals to what is now a wide range of investigations and legal battles over the president’s business interests and what information he and his family will be required to provide about them.
While Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has wrapped up his inquiry on Russian interference in the 2016 election, a half-dozen House committees are seeking financial information related to the Trump Organization, its accountants and lenders. The president and his family filed suit late Monday in New York against their biggest lender and one of their banks, to try to stop the firms from complying with subpoenas from congressional committees.
Led by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, the Democrats filed their suit last year asking the court to force Trump to stop accepting payments they consider violations of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause. They say the provision was designed to guard against undue influence by foreign governments by barring any “emolument” — meaning a gift or payment — without prior approval from Congress.