Donald Trump is no stranger to the justice system. He has filed lawsuits and has been sued many, many times. In fact, a USA Today analysis found 3,500 legal actions by and against Trump. 3,500!!! It’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it? Well, we can add one more to the list because on the first Monday of his new job, President Trump was slapped with a lawsuit (He was also sued last week by a former Apprentice contestant).
On January 23, 2017, leading ethics experts filed a massive lawsuit against Trump alleging that his business relationships with foreign powers and foreign players violates the Constitution, specifically they allege that his actions violate the little known emoluments clause. As with any constitutional claim the legal issues are complex but, simply stated, the emoluments clause prohibits federal officials from receiving financial benefits from foreign governments. President Trump’s companies have multimillion-dollar real estate deals with foreign powers and it is those dealings, among others, the suit claims, that violate the emoluments clause. Two easy to understand examples are that The Bank of China, one of the five biggest state owned commercial banks in China, is a tenant of Trump Tower and is also as a lender in another building in New York City in which Trump has a significant partnership interest.
Trump has been fighting the conflicts issue for months as it was continually raised during the campaign. In response to such complaints, Trump said that although he would not sell his ownership in his company, The Trump Organization, he would hand over control of it to his two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric. He also promised that his company would not make any more deals abroad and would donate profits from foreign governments that stay in his hotels to the U.S. Treasury (Hmmm. Let’s see if that happens!). Naturally, Trump’s camp has praised his actions to limit his conflicts. In fact one of his lawyers, called his efforts to do so, “extraordinary.” But that’s what his side is saying. Esteemed and widely regarded government ethics lawyers and experts say Trump’s steps to remove conflicts of interest are not enough and that is why this lawsuit was filed today.
The truth is that no other president has had such wide and deep foreign business dealings. The Trump Organization, has stakes in real estate holdings in 20 countries, including Turkey and South Korea. And, Trump has not lived a life of public service, his life, to date, has been about him, about how to amass wealth and how to serve his own interests. With this history in conjunction with the breadth of his foreign business dealings in a company he still owns, it’s hardly surprising that people are worried that Trump will put his personal financial interests above those of the people of the United States.
The pedigrees of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are impressive and include attorney Norman Eisen, an ethics adviser to Barack Obama, Richard Painter, a former George W. Bush adviser, and Constitutional law scholars Erwin Chemerinsky and Laurence H. Tribe, among others. But despite the background and experience of these scholars and attorneys, this is no open and shut case—at any level. In fact, whether the plaintiffs even have standing (the right to sue) and whether or not the emoluments clause even applies to the office of the president, and more specifically, to Trump’s actions, has already been raised.
Two things we do know for sure? This case is going be heavily litigated by both sides and that list of 3500 Trump lawsuits is going to continue to grow to over the next four years.
If you want more details about Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v Donald J. Trump, click here for a copy of the complaint filed on January 23, 2017 in federal court in New York.