Trump May Be Sued for Violating Emoluments Clause, District Judge Says

May 1, 2019 Updated: May 1, 2019

WASHINGTON—U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia Emmet Sullivan refused the Trump administration’s motion to dismiss a Democratic lawmaker-initiated lawsuit claiming that America’s first billionaire president violated the Constitution’s rarely cited Foreign Emoluments Clause.

The lawsuit alleges that President Donald Trump is violating the clause, which prevents any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them” from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title … from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The clause forbids government officials from receiving gifts from foreign states and monarchies without the consent of Congress, in the hope of shielding the “small-R” republican character of the United States from corrupting foreign influences.

Appointed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, Sullivan has been a thorn in the Trump administration’s side for some time. In December, he struck down administration policies that made it more difficult for foreigners who claim to be victims of domestic or gang violence to seek asylum. That same month, the judge lashed out at former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, suggesting the defendant was guilty of treason, as he postponed his scheduled sentencing for lying to the FBI.

In the April 30 memorandum opinion in Blumenthal v. Trump, Sullivan wrote that the 201 Democratic representatives and senators were justified in seeking relief in the lawsuit and that their request was constitutionally valid.

The request the lawmakers made for an injunction requiring the president to adhere to the Emoluments Clause is also valid, because the Trump administration hasn’t demonstrated that granting it “would interfere with his ability to ensure that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Sullivan, who is based in the nation’s capital, also ruled that Trump ignored “the ordinary meaning” of the word “emolument” as intended by the framers of the Constitution by claiming it referred only to profits he generates directly through his own work.

Lawmakers claim the fact that Trump has many businesses around the world, coupled with his refusal to sell off those assets, is proof in itself that he has violated the Constitution. They say his decision to put those assets in a blind trust run by two of his sons still doesn’t make his actions constitutional. Some Trump critics have said if a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump-owned hotel, this is evidence in itself that the emoluments clause has been violated.

Trump’s lawyers counter that the clause only applies if Trump directly profits or takes in a gift from a foreign power in exchange for taking a specific action as president. Other Trump defenders note that the American people knew he was an active, successful businessman when they elected him, and that requiring a complete divestment of his businesses while president is unreasonable.

George Washington, who was first to serve as the nation’s president under the then-newly adopted Constitution, apparently did not believe the Emoluments Clause applied to the presidency, according to legal scholar Seth Barrett Tillman.

President Washington “accepted and kept two diplomatic gifts, but he neither asked for nor received congressional consent. Washington’s conduct was widely reported in the press. So it would seem to indicate that he, his administration, Congress, and the public did not believe that the Clause applied to the presidency.”

RECOMMENDED