Lawmakers’ Challenge to Trump Finances Faces Court Test

‘We cannot approve, we cannot consent to, what we don’t know’

President Donald Trump is now looking to Congress to restrict Chinese investments in U.S. tech companies. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump is now looking to Congress to restrict Chinese investments in U.S. tech companies. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 6, 2018 at 11:32am

A federal district judge will hear arguments Thursday about whether Democratic lawmakers can pursue a lawsuit over President Donald Trump’s vast business interests and whether he must get congressional approval before accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments.

More than 200 Democrats filed the lawsuit a year ago, in the first months of Trump’s presidency, when their concerns included payments from governments at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and trademarks issued by the Chinese to Trump and his companies. 

The issue has gained salience with new revelations in recent weeks. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat who is leading the lawsuit along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, pointed Tuesday to Trump’s announcement in May that he wanted to help Chinese telecommunications company ZTE.

That was shortly after a $500 million loan from Chinese state groups went to a development in Indonesia with a Trump hotel and golf course, according to media reports of the arrangement. Blumenthal said the situation epitomizes why the drafters put the “emoluments clause” in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution.

“They wanted judgments by the president to be made independent of any sort of benefit to him, unless the Congress approves,” Blumenthal said. “And we cannot approve, we cannot consent to, what we don’t know.”

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The Trump administration, however, has asked the judge to toss out the lawsuit, arguing that the lawmakers don’t have the right to sue. Among the reasons: This is a separation of powers fight to be settled politically, not in a courtroom.

To that point, the Justice Department notes that some lawmakers who filed the suit authored bills about the president’s alleged emoluments clause violations that haven’t gotten a vote.

“Plaintiffs could not convince their own colleagues in Congress to take the actions they desired, and now seek the aid of the Judiciary to circumvent the legislative process prescribed by the Constitution,” the Justice Department wrote.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan will decide the case at a later date. 

The emoluments clause states: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Blumenthal says the clause assigns Congress a task. “It comes down to whether I can do my job, very simply,” Blumenthal said. “My job is to review and consent, or refuse to consent, to foreign benefits going to the president of the United States.”

Because of that, Blumenthal said, Congress “is the only ballgame, the only party, that can enforce the emoluments clause.”

A bipartisan group of 19 former lawmakers sided with the Democrats in the case. In a similar legal battle in March, a federal judge ruled that the District of Columbia and Maryland could proceed with emoluments clause lawsuits against Trump.