WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge in Maryland ruled on Wednesday that President Donald Trump must face a lawsuit that claims his Washington D.C., hotel puts him in violation of the Constitution.
The case concerns the so-called emoluments clauses of the Constitution, which prohibit the president from receiving gifts from foreign or state governments or officials while in office. Maryland and Washington D.C., filed a lawsuit in June 2017 claiming the profits the Trump International Hotel receives from various government customers qualify as emoluments.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, in March ruled Maryland and Washington D.C., have standing to bring the challenge for activities at the hotel.
In a 52-page opinion on Wednesday, Messitte rejected Trump’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, writing an “emolument” is “any profit, gain or advantage,” and that Maryland and the District of Columbia have plausibly claimed the hotel’s profits meet that definition.
Citing 17th century dictionaries, the words of the founders, and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Messitte rejected Trump’s claim that people during the founding era would not have thought of profits from a hotel as emoluments.
“An ’emolument within the meaning of the 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,” Messitte wrote. “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.”
Trump pointed out that George Washington once purchased public land at a public auction and that President Ronald Reagan was allowed to receive his California state retirement benefits while in the White House, but Messitte found neither example compelling in light of other evidence that suggests the executive branch has been careful to avoid emoluments clause violations.
“The main takeaway from executive precedent stands in bold relief: the emoluments clauses are intended to protect against any type of potentially improper influence by foreign, the federal, and state governments upon the president,” Messitte wrote.
A spokesman for the Justice Department on Wednesday said the agency stands by its contention that Messitte should throw the case out of court.
“We continue to maintain that this case should be dismissed, a position that was shared by a New York court in a related case,” Justice Department spokesman Andy Reuss said. “The Justice Department is reviewing the order and determining next steps to continue vigorously defending the President.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh hailed the decision as “historic” in a written statement, noting that “Judge Messitte held that the emoluments clauses of the United States Constitution are ‘broad anti-corruption provisions’ that can be enforced in court.
“No other President has ignored the prohibitions on receipt of payments and benefits from foreign
governments or additional benefits from the United States or any individual state,” Frosh continued. “The Court saw through President Trump’s attempts to excuse his unconstitutional behavior, rejected his self-serving definition of ‘emoluments,’ and held that the term ‘extends to any profit, gain, or advantage’ of more than de minimis value, received by him ‘from foreign, the federal, or domestic governments.’”
“We now look forward to proceeding with discovery and litigating the merits of this case,” he said.
Washington D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine likewise praised the decision on Twitter, saying the ruling brings Maryland and the city “one step closer to stopping President Trump from violating the Constitution’s original anti-corruption provisions.