The attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland said Wednesday that the corruption case they are pursuing against President Trump hinges on the fact that Trump-branded hotels are competing with hospitality businesses that the state and the District have financial stakes in.
The officials used the unconventional argument to claim they had the legal standing to bring the case against the president.
"We allege that in respect to the D.C. Convention Center business has been lost because foreign governments have directed as much of their business as possible to the Trump Hotel in D.C.," said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine in claiming that Trump has violated the Constitution's emoluments clause. The section prohibits the president from "accept[ing] ... any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign state."
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who joined the District in the lawsuit, said his state was similarly harmed because "The Trump hotel competes with facilities in which Maryland has a direct financial interest." The officials spoke in a conference call organized by the American Constitution Society, a liberal legal group.
The attorneys general made the same basic argument that nearly 200 Democratic lawmakers made in a lawsuit filed Wednesday and that the nonprofit group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility made in January: that the president's business interests place him in violation of the emoluments clause because Trump-branded hotels, particularly the Trump International Hotel in Washington, have hosted foreign diplomats and governments and that foreign state-owned entities live at the Trump Tower in New York City. Trump has turned over control of his business enterprises to his children but has not completely divested himself from them.
Racine and Frosh said that the president's continuing financial interest in Trump-branded hotels is causing foreign governments to direct business to them in an attempt to curry favoritism with the White House. That is causing citizens of Maryland and the District to lose revenue from places such as the Walter W. Washington Convention Center in Washington, which gives them grounds bring suit against the White House.
The attorneys general admitted that they faced a significant hurdle in their case: It has never been clear what the emoluments clause meant because it has never been defined by the courts. "It is remarkable that it has never litigated before," Racine said.
A key problem for those pursuing the lawsuits is whether they have legal standing to bring a case. Racine and Frosh said they were pursuing their cases partly because members of Congress or nonprofit groups may not have standing. "But if anyone can do it, it is the states," Frosh said.
They said they expected the case to be "ferociously litigated" and to eventually reach the Supreme Court. Both said they believed their lawsuits involved potentially impeachable offenses by the president.
The White House has moved to dismiss the cases. In a statement Monday, spokesman Sean Spicer said, "The suit was filed by two Democratic attorneys general, the lawyers driving the suit are an advocacy group with partisan ties ... and the suit challenges the sort of business transactions that everyone from Penny Pritzker, who served in the last administration, and others have engaged in while in office."