In this photo taken Dec. 21, 2106, the Trump International Hotel in Washington. 
Alex Brandon

Trump just can’t shake his emoluments case headache

I suspect some readers see the word “emoluments,” and immediately lose interest, but as Donald Trump controversies go, this one has a lot of potential. NBC News reported late last week:

President Donald Trump’s lawyers cannot try to derail a lawsuit over his ownership of the Trump Hotel in Washington by appealing a key early ruling in the case, a federal judge said Friday, dealing another blow to the president’s efforts to block the case from going forward.

The Trump legal team sought authority from the federal judge in the case, Peter Messitte of Maryland, to appeal the judge’s pre-trial decision that the emoluments clauses are intended to protect against any type of potentially improper influence…. In his order Friday, Messitte said the government cannot appeal the case piecemeal and must wait for a final ruling after a trial. He also declined to put a hold on the case, which would have blocked the challengers from seeking evidence about his hotel business through the legal process known as discovery.

There are multiple legal disputes surrounding Trump and his emoluments troubles, but this case, brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., appears to be the most serious for the president – and as of Friday, it isn’t going away.

There are a couple of angles of interest, including some of the details of Friday’s court order, but let’s start by recapping what makes the case so interesting.

As we discussed in July, 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. The judge sided in their favor on this, too.

So now what? As the NBC News report explained, the judge on Friday ordered lawyers for Maryland and D.C. “to submit a schedule for discovery within 20 days.” That opens up a variety of interesting possibilities: the plaintiffs 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 also of interest was a tidbit the judge included in his court order on Friday. The Washington Post  reported over the weekend:

Messitte noted Trump’s threats to sue author Michael Wolff and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, and Trump’s taunting of former CIA director John Brennan in August. After Trump revoked Brennan’s security clearance, Trump wrote on Twitter: “I hope John Brennan, the worst CIA Director in our country’s history, brings a lawsuit.”

“It bears noting that the President himself seems to have had little reluctance to pursue personal litigation despite the supposed distractions it imposes on his office,” Messitte wrote.

In other words, Trump’s lawyers have said the president shouldn’t have to deal with litigation like this because the office of the presidency leaves him with so little time. The judge responded by pointing to Trump’s many tweets in which he invited litigation – effectively discrediting his own attorneys’ argument.

It’s not even close to being the first time the president’s own words have been used against him in court. As regular readers know, this keeps happening:

* In January, the administration lost a DACA case, and the court ruling cited the president’s own rhetoric when ruling against his position.

* In Bowe Bergdahl’s case, the judge indicated that he would consider Trump’s record of highly provocative rhetoric towards Bergdahl as part of the sentencing decision.

* The initial versions of the White House’s Muslim ban faced repeated legal difficulties because of Trump’s own rhetoric.

* The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded over the summer that Democratic attorneys general could participate in a case over health care policy as a result of Trump’s rhetoric.

* The administration’s lawyers ran into the same problem last April trying to defend Trump’s executive order on so-called “sanctuary cities.”

* And in March 2018, Trump lost another DACA case in part because of his own rhetoric.

In a way, Trump’s opponents should probably hope he never stops speaking his mind so freely.

Constitution and Donald Trump

Trump just can't shake his emoluments case headache