As if Donald Trump didn’t have enough troubles on his plate, today’s news from a federal courtroom in Maryland just created a new headache for the president. The Washington Post reported:
A federal judge on Wednesday rejected President Trump’s latest effort to stop a lawsuit that alleges Trump is violating the Constitution by continuing to do business with foreign governments.
The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte in Greenbelt, Md., will allow the plaintiffs in the case – the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia – to proceed with their case, which says Trump has violated the Constitution’s little-used emoluments clause.
If you haven’t been following the controversy, this might seem like a complicated fight over an obscure constitutional provision, but stick with me because it’s not as complex as it might sound.
Circling back to our previous coverage, the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause prevents U.S. officials from receiving payments from foreign governments, which traditionally hasn’t posed much of a problem for sitting presidents. But as is often the case, things get a little tricky with Trump: because the president has refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, it means he continues to profit from businesses that receive payments from foreign governments.
The problem isn’t theoretical: Saudi Arabia, for example, spent roughly $270,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel during one of the country’s lobbying campaigns last year. Some of that money directly benefited the president.
Which, not surprisingly, creates a legal problem that’s now being litigated.
When the attorneys general of Maryland and D.C. filed suit, they had to clear some hurdles that could’ve scuttled their case. For example, a judge had to agree they had the necessary standing to even file the case, and they cleared that hurdle in March.
The plaintiffs then had to prove that the Emoluments Clause applied to this kind of presidential private-sector venture. Today, the judge sided in their favor on this, too.
This wasn’t a ruling on the merits of the overall case; rather, this just allows that case to move forward.
So now what? Well, that’s not entirely clear. As the Post reported today, Maryland and D.C. now want “to interview Trump Organization employees and search company records to determine which foreign countries have spent money at Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington.”
But before that happens, Trump’s lawyers may appeal today’s ruling. The district court may also decide to halt the discovery process until the appeals have been fully addressed.
That said, the president and his legal team hoped to make these questions go away entirely, and as of this afternoon, the opposite has happened. It creates the very real possibility of Democratic attorneys general taking a deep dive into Trump World’s books.
Postscript: It’s worth noting for context that in February, the Trump Organization said it was “donating” its hotel profits from foreign governments. And while that sounded good, the Trump Organization didn’t say how much money it donated or where the money came from.
Making matters slightly worse, Team Trump originally planned to monitor receipts and make sure the president didn’t profit from foreign governments, but that became burdensome. Instead, Trump Organization officials said they would create estimates based on their best guesses.