Appeals court gives green light to emoluments case against Trump

Among the many legal controversies surrounding Donald Trump is an emoluments dispute he just can't shake.
Image: The Trump International Hotel in Washington
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, April 18, 2019.Amr Alfiky / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Among the many legal controversies surrounding Donald Trump is an emoluments dispute he just can't shake. Take this morning's developments, for example.

A federal appeals court on Thursday refused to throw out a lawsuit that claims President Donald Trump's ownership of a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C., violates the Constitution's ban on receiving financial benefits from the states or foreign leaders. By a vote of 9-6, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an effort by Trump's lawyers to get the case dismissed, saying that the federal court overseeing the case wrongly failed to rule on whether the president is immune from such lawsuits.

For those who may need a refresher, let's circle back to our earlier coverage on this.

The U.S. Constitution includes a once-obscure provision known as the "Emoluments Clause." As regular readers know, the provision 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 just theoretical: plenty of foreign officials and representatives of foreign governments have spent money at Trump's properties.

Naturally, this dynamic has sparked a series of lawsuits, including a case filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, who've specifically focused on the president's hotel in the nation's capital, a half-mile from the White House.

Last summer, a three-judge panel -- made up of 4th Circuit judges chosen by Republican presidents, including one Trump appointee -- rejected the lawsuit. This morning, the full 4th Circuit revived the case. The report from NBC News' Pete Williams added:

[The three-judge panel last year] said the local governments couldn't show how any such competition, if it existed, could be legally prevented. Thursday's ruling did not address that issue. Instead, it said Trump's lawyers wrongly tried to get the case thrown out on the grounds that he is absolutely immune from such lawsuits. The appeals court said because the trial judge hasn't yet ruled on that issue, it could not be appealed. The ruling revives the lawsuit and sends it back to the judge for further proceedings.

While this case continues, it's worth noting that it's not the only litigation of its kind. There's also an emoluments case pending in the 2nd Circuit, as well as a related case filed by congressional Democrats, which the D.C. Circuit rejected in February.

Whether any of these disputes are fully resolved before Election Day remains to be seen -- the odds are against it -- but if Trump and his lawyers lose, the president may be required to disclose financial information he has long sought to keep hidden from the public. Watch this space.