Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday that President Trump may be putting China's interests ahead of America's for financial gain, but did not address his own family's management of the Empire State Building, which like Trump Tower has a Chinese government-linked tenant.
In a call with reporters, Blumenthal said a Chinese bank renting space at Trump Tower in New York is illegal without congressional permission and may be influencing Trump's policy decisions.
“To be really blunt, an arm of the Chinese government is paying President Trump rent for his building, and last year as you all know China granted President Trump 40 trademarks,” the Connecticut Democrat said on a conference call.
“These approvals of trademarks closely followed the president’s abrupt decision as president to honor the One-China Policy, a reversal of his earlier position," he said. "Shortly after receiving those trademark registrations, President Trump flip-flopped on labeling China a currency manipulator.”
“As he travels to China, we’re left wondering, Americans are left wondering if President Trump is representing American interests or his own, and which he’s going to put first," he said.
Blumenthal, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is the named plaintiff in Blumenthal v. Trump, which claims Trump is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause by not receiving permission from Congress to have foreign-government tenants. In addition to the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Trump Tower is home to the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
Two hundred Democratic lawmakers have signed on to Blumenthal’s lawsuit regarding the obscure clause, which says "no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
But Blumenthal did not mention on the call that the People’s Daily newspaper is a tenant in the Empire State Building, which his wife’s family manages. He departed the call before a question and answer period with legal experts.
A moderator on the Constitutional Accountability Center-hosted call would not allow the experts to address whether Blumenthal is himself violating the clause. “The focus of this call is on the president and the lawsuit against him for his patent violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause," the moderator said.
Blumenthal’s office previously said he does not personally own a stake in the Empire State Building, and that such holdings listed on his annual Senate financial disclosure forms belong to his wife.
But Michael Stern, senior counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004, told the Washington Examiner that under Blumenthal's logic, "President Trump could avoid any Foreign Emoluments Clause problem simply by transferring his financial interests into the names of his wife or children."
Some scholars doubt that the president is covered by the clause. Others argue lawmakers don’t fall under it, though recent ethics manuals for both House and Senate members say the clause applies to them.
An October court filing by the Constitutional Accountability Center offers a third possible defense for Blumenthal. That filing said in a footnote: “the Clause’s scope is limited by factors beyond the meaning of ‘emolument,’ such as the requirement that an officeholder ‘accept’ an emolument ‘from’ a foreign state. This means that certain benefits which might fit within the broadest definition of emolument... are nevertheless outside the Clause’s scope, because they cannot be ‘accepted’ or are not ‘from’ a foreign state.”
“Plaintiffs' position seems to be rooted in the longstanding tradition in American law that commercial entities have separate and independent legal personality — separate and independent from the stockholders,” said Seth Barrett Tillman, currently a lecturer at Maynooth University Department of Law in Ireland, of Blumenthal's position. “But if that is their position, then surely the same logic should insulate Trump."
Another doubter of Blumenthal’s legal arguments is Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law who argues the clause applies neither to the president or lawmakers.
Blackman said he found a section of the 10-K form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by Empire State Realty suggesting Blumenthal may indeed benefit directly from the skyscraper, rather than indirectly through his wife. A Blumenthal spokesperson said they were not immediately able to comment on this interpretation.