In this photo taken Dec. 21, 2016, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump's $200 million hotel inside the federally owned Old Post Office...
Alex Brandon

Trump faces constitutional questions over foreign payments

The moment he took the oath of office as president, Donald Trump was already facing a serious legal dispute. The Constitution, which the Republican had just sworn to uphold, prevents U.S. officials from receiving payments from foreign governments – it’s generally known as the “Emoluments Clause” – but Trump, who refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, continues to profit from businesses who receive payments from foreign governments.

There’s already some pending litigation challenging Trump’s current practices, but the Washington Post reports that the legal dispute will add a new dimension today.

Attorneys general for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland say they will sue President Trump on Monday, alleging that he has violated anti-corruption clauses in the Constitution by accepting millions in payments and benefits from foreign governments since moving into the White House.

The lawsuit, the first of its kind brought by government entities, centers on the fact that Trump chose to retain ownership of his company when he became president…. But D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) say Trump has broken many promises to keep separate his public duties and private business interests.

The lawsuit, the report added, alleges that Trump’s continued ownership of a global business empire has rendered the president “deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors” and has undermined the integrity of the U.S. political system.

The problem isn’t theoretical: we learned last week, for example, that Saudi Arabia spent roughly $270,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel during one of the country’s recent lobbying campaigns.

Before the president’s inauguration, Trump vowed that his business would monitor receipts and make sure the president didn’t profit from foreign governments. A few weeks ago, NBC News reported that the Trump Organization decided not to keep that promise, determining that it’d be too difficult.

As for the pending cases on this issue, including one filed in January by the non-profit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Trump’s Justice Department is trying to have the court challenges thrown out. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on the administration’s argument:

Government lawyers said Friday that the U.S. Constitution permits President Donald Trump’s hotels and other businesses to accept payments from foreign governments, in response to a lawsuit alleging such payments violate the Constitution. […]

The Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause says no U.S. officeholder “shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever” from a foreign state. The Domestic Emoluments Clause says the president may receive only a salary set by Congress and no other emolument from the states. An emolument is typically defined as a fee or salary.

“Neither the text nor the history of the Clauses shows that they were intended to reach benefits arising from a President’s private business pursuits having nothing to do with his office or personal service to a foreign power,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in a Friday filing asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Oh. So the president may be profiting directly from payments made by foreign governments, and the Constitution may prohibit officials from receiving any payment from foreign governments, but according to the Trump administration’s lawyers, the Constitution’s prohibition doesn’t really count in this case.

It’s now up to a federal court to determine whether to allow the case(s) to continue.

Donald Trump

Trump faces constitutional questions over foreign payments