MANHATTAN (CN) — Tossing out a high-profile lawsuit alleging that President Donald Trump’s business entanglements represent a threat to the republic, a federal judge found on Thursday that such a concern is better left for Congress to decide.
“Congress could, for example, enact legislation codifying its views by statute or expand the Constitution's conflict-of-interest protections,” U.S. District Judge George Daniels wrote in a 29-page ruling.
In the absence of such legislation, Daniels found, the Washington-based corruption watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW for short, has no business telling a court to perform oversight of a sitting president’s vast corporate empire.
CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder vowed to keep fighting the case.
“The Constitution’s emoluments clauses are core protections against destabilizing foreign and domestic corruption,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “We never thought we would have to sue the president to enforce them; we hoped that President Trump would take the necessary steps to avoid violating the Constitution before he took office. He did not, and we were forced to bring our landmark emoluments case because the plaintiffs in this case—and the American people—have been directly harmed by the president’s violations.”
The emoluments clause holds that “no person holding any office of profit or trust under [the United States], shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
Describing the ruling as a “setback,” Bookbinder said that the watchdog “will not walk away from this serious and ongoing constitutional violation.”
“The Constitution is explicit on these issues, and the president is clearly in violation,” the CREW director said. “Our legal team is weighing its options and will soon lay out our decisions on how to proceed.”
CREW fought its case together with hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that alleged Trump was unfairly competing with them in their competition to draw foreign diplomats.
Daniels ruled that CREW misconstrued the country’s founders’ warnings.
“Nothing in the text or the history of the emoluments clauses suggests that the Framers intended these provisions to protect anyone from competition,” the judge wrote. “The prohibitions contained in these Clauses arose from the Framers' concern with protecting the new government from corruption and undue influence. Indeed, at the time of the Founding, the new republic was conscious of the European custom of bestowing gifts and money on foreign officials. The Framers, who fought a war to gain their independence from British rule, wanted government officials to avoid future undue influence.”
The Framers did not envision the modern hospitality industry within the clauses' crosshairs, the judge said.
“Given this history, there can be no doubt that the intended purpose of the foreign emoluments clause was to prevent official corruption and foreign influence, while the domestic emoluments clause was meant to ensure presidential independence,” the ruling states.
Daniels dismissed all of the parties on the grounds of standing, the legal principle that only those affected by an alleged act of wrongdoing have the right to sue.
Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam applauded the ruling in a statement.
“The Department of Justice appreciates the court’s ruling and its conclusion that plaintiffs lack standing to pursue these claims in federal court, that plaintiffs’ claims do not fall within the zone of interests of the emoluments clauses, and that plaintiffs’ claims involve political questions that cannot be resolved in federal court,” Ehrsam said.
The judge also threw out a separate lawsuit by attorney William Weinstein, demanding the return of the foreign cash flowing into his companies back to “the people.”
That lawsuit tried to put teeth on a promise Trump’s attorneys made to disavow any conflicts of interest before he took office.
“To put to rest any concerns, however, the President-Elect is announcing he will donate all profits from foreign governments’ patronage of his hotels and similar businesses during his presidential term to the U.S. Treasury,” the Philadelphia-based global law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP vowed in a "white paper" issued Jan. 11.
Weinstein hoped to make that promise legally binding, but Daniels refused to do so for the same reason he slapped down CREW’s suit.
“Our judicial system does not recognize or provide redress for just any grievance,” Daniels wrote. “Rather, a plaintiff must identify the specific legal basis pursuant to which he is entitled to a remedy.”
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.