Maryland Judge Advances Emoluments Suit Against Trump

The Trump International Hotel in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

GREENBELT, Md., (CN) – One of several emoluments clause challenges faced by President Donald Trump received lift-off Wednesday with a federal judge finding that Maryland and Washington, D.C., have standing to sue.

“Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the president is violating the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses of the Constitution by reason of his involvement with and receipt of benefits from the Trump International Hotel and its appurtenances in Washington D.C., as well as the operations of the Trump Organization with respect to the same,” the 47-page opinion by U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte states.

A Clinton appointee, Messitte also noted, however, that it would be “a considerable stretch” to let Maryland and Washington challenge Trump’s interests in businesses outside of the capital region.

Back in January, the question of standing ate up a day-long hearing in the case. In addition to the foreign emoluments clause, which prevents the president from receiving gifts from foreign officials, the challengers have invoked the law’s domestic counterpart, which bars states from giving the president any benefits.

Though Trump claimed that neither Maryland nor Washington could show they were injured by Trump’s ownership of the glitzy hotel, Messitte’s ruling cites changes in tax and ownership rules for the hotel since the inauguration, as well as Maine Governor Paul LePage’s stay at the hotel ahead of an official meeting with the president.

These events could give Maryland the impression that it must give favorable treatment to Trump’s properties to curry his favor, Messitte wrote.

“In the court’s view, these circumstances do not, as the president maintains, involve numerous inferential leaps to demonstrate injury to the quasi-sovereign interests of Maryland and the District of Columbia insofar as the president’s purported violations of the domestic emoluments clause are concerned,” Messitte wrote. “At least with respect to the D.C.-based hotel’s operations, plaintiffs have adequately demonstrated that their quasi-sovereign interests in this particular way have been injured-in-fact.”

Messitte also found that Maryland and Washington showed likely injury to venues in which they have ownership interests that compete directly with Trump’s hotel for high-end clients. If customers see a political advantage to going to the Trump International, Messitte said it stands to reason that the bottom lines of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the Bethesda Marriott Conference Center could suffer.

Applying the same logic as with the state-owned convention centers, Messitte additionally found Maryland and Washington can bring the lawsuit to protect the interests of their private hospitality industries, which could also suffer from diplomats and other power players choosing Trump’s venue.

As for the other key steps to establish standing, Messitte found that the potential injuries could be directly traced to Trump and that the court could give a remedy. The judge brushed aside Trump’s claims that the court should dismiss the case under the political-question doctrine, which holds courts should stay out of disputes that the political branches should resolve.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has lawyers working on the case, praised the decision on social media on Wednesday, as did the two attorneys general who brought the lawsuit.

“Today’s decision is a win for the rule of law and soundly rejects the Trump administration’s argument that nobody can challenge the president’s illegal conduct,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement.

The Justice Department meanwhile stood by the arguments it made in court.

“As we argued, we believe this case should be dismissed and we will continue to defend the president in court,” Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.

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