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

Trump’s emoluments headache is poised to get a whole lot worse

The U.S. Constitution includes a once-obscure provision known as the “Emoluments Clause.” As regular readers know, the law is pretty straightforward: U.S. officials are prohibited from receiving payments from foreign governments. Traditionally, this hasn’t been much of a problem for sitting American presidents – but with Donald Trump things are a little different.

After all, this president has refused to divest from his private-sector enterprises, which means he continues to personally 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.

This legally dubious dynamic has been the target of multiple lawsuits, one of which is poised to become even more interesting. The Associated Press reported late yesterday:

The attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland said Monday that they are moving forward with subpoenas for records in their case accusing President Donald Trump of profiting off the presidency.

U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte approved the legal discovery schedule in an order Monday. Such information would likely provide the first clear picture of the finances of Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel.

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.

And now, as part of the discovery process, 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.”

Whether that’ll happen, however, is still the subject of some controversy.

In theory, the discovery phase should begin soon and last for months, but the Trump administration is scrambling to block the process from continuing. The Associated Press report added:

Trump’s Justice Department lawyers filed a notice to the court Friday that appeared to challenge the Maryland judge’s decision to allow the case to move forward. The president’s notice that he may seek a writ of mandamus – to have the appeal heard by a higher court – is considered an “extraordinary remedy” that’s hard to prove and partly rests on showing Messitte’s decisions to be clearly wrong.

Watch this space.

Donald Trump

Trump's emoluments headache is poised to get a whole lot worse