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Law & the Courts

Court Dismisses Emoluments-Clause Suit against Trump

A general view of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., April 18, 2019. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

A federal appeals court handed President Trump a legal victory Wednesday, dismissing a long-running lawsuit alleging that Trump illegally profits from his official position when foreign dignitaries and diplomats stay at his Washington, D.C. hotel.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously ruled that the attorney generals of Maryland and the District of Columbia lacked the legal standing to bring a suit alleging that Trump violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by continuing to profit from his hotel’s foreign clientele.

“The District and Maryland’s interest in enforcing the Emoluments Clauses is so attenuated and abstract that their prosecution of this case readily provokes the question of whether this action against the President is an appropriate use of the courts, which were created to resolve real cases and controversies between the parties,” Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in the 36-page opinion.

Trump immediately celebrated the ruling on Twitter, applying his trademark “witch hunt” label to the lawsuit.

The Democratic plaintiffs, Maryland attorney general Brian Frosh and D.C. attorney general Karl Racine, said they would consider seeking a rehearing before a full panel of the Fourth Circuit and said that the case may eventually reach the Supreme Court. But the pair now face an uphill battle considering Wednesday’s rejection of their argument that Trump’s ownership in the hotel diverts business that would otherwise go to other comparable local establishments.

“There is a distinct possibility — which was completely ignored by the District and Maryland, as well as by the district court — that certain government officials might avoid patronizing the Hotel because of the President’s association with it,” the opinion reads. “Even if government officials were patronizing the Hotel to curry the President’s favor, there is no reason to conclude that they would cease doing so were the President enjoined from receiving income from the Hotel. After all, the Hotel would still be publicly associated with the President, would still bear his name, and would still financially benefit members of his family.”

The decision comes amid an ongoing legal struggle between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats, who have been frustrated in their efforts to conduct constitutional oversight of the administration in the face of the White House’s refusal to turn over financial records related to the president’s businesses. Democrats issued dozens of subpoenas for those records this week in connection with a separate emoluments-clause case in federal court in Washington, D.C.

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