U.S. President Donald Trump ascended to the White House on the promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. The real estate mogul, known for a lavish career and an appreciation for golden toilets, appears to be not so far above the level of Washington himself, according to a new court ruling which will allow an investigation into his hotel businesses.
Unlike the monarchies of old, afforded unchecked power through their enticing wealth, presidents are supposed to be the definitive elected representative of the citizenry. Throughout history, from kings to dictators, corrupting forces have persuaded world leaders in the form of gifts, payments, favors, any form of bribable value where power can be sold to the highest bidder. America’s founders — despite all their flaws — believed such practices reprehensible, drafting the constitution’s once obscure “emoluments clause” to hold these representatives to account.
Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution reads:
“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And 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.”
Last Wednesday, the court found the GOP strongman isn’t above this law, proceeding with a lawsuit arguing it’s unconstitutional for the Trump administration to accept foreign and domestic profits through a downtown Washington hotel owned by the Trump Organization. The recent decision was made by Judge Peter Messitte for the U.S. District Court of Maryland, rejecting a push from the administration to prevent an inquiry into how the building’s income influences governmental policy.
The Washington Post reports Judge Messitte’s decision could allow the lawsuit’s plaintiffs — the attorney generals of Maryland and Columbia — to interview employees for the Trump Organization and allow searches into company records. This will help the investigation conclude which governments invested money into the hotel, what those governments might have received in exchange for their payments, and whether deceptive practices, whether in appearance or reality, are being used by the president.
“It’s a historic decision,” Maryland’s Attorney General Brian Frosh recently told The Huffington Post following the decision. “The judge says that the emoluments are broad anti-corruption clauses and can be enforced in the courts. We’ll ask for documents that will prove our case. We’re seeking documents that show the payments and benefits that Trump has received that violate the emoluments clause. We want to know what the hotel’s received and what the president’s received.”
Trump, known for his unsubtle billionaire lifestyle, has shown tremendous pride in refusing to divest from his business interests. Since being elected to the presidency, Trump has frequently used places like Mar-a-Lago, a landmark resort owned by the Trump family, to conduct international diplomacy when golfing and company enrichment isn’t the main agenda. And while the president’s tax returns remain under lock and key, it remains unclear how much the commander-in-chief receives across his businesses.
Despite countless reports indicating that foreign governments paid for access through Trump properties, the court limited the lawsuit to the potential conflicts of interest regarding the Trump International Hotel in D.C., excluding his other properties across the world. This could still emerge as a constitutional nightmare for the president going forward.
In our previous TrigTent report, we noted that the hotel charged significantly different rates for the standard MAGA hat wearer customers at the building than for the government officials who briefly resided in them. Officials from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, reportedly paid over $270,000 in hotel fees for catering, parking, and accommodation during their two-week stay at the Trump hotel, according to DOJ filings obtained last year. These payments are consistent with a report from The Daily Caller, stating that after this transaction the administration suddenly joined Saudi Arabia in lobbying against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
Judge Messitte previously agreed damages against the American people were evident. He approved a legal definition of “emolument” to mean “any ‘profit,’ ‘gain,’ or ‘advantage’” obtained without Congressional approval — the first time federal judges have even been forced to define these constitutional provisions. Now he’s ruled these questions need answering, whether it’s through the defense, employees or documents revealing a crime.
He said at the time:
“Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the President is violating the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution by reason of his involvement with and receipt of benefits from the Trump International Hotel and its appurtenances in Washington, D.C. as well as the operations of the Trump Organization with respect to the same. Plaintiffs have demonstrated their standing to challenge those purported violations because they have shown injury-in-fact, fairly traceable to the President’s acts, and that the injury is likely redressable by the Court.”
He continued in his latest decision:
“An ‘emolument’ within the meaning of the Emoluments Clauses was intended to reach beyond simple payment for services rendered by a federal official in his official capacity, which in effect would merely restate a prohibition against bribery, The term was intended to embrace and ban anything more than de minimis profit, gain, or advantage offered to a public official in his private capacity as well, wholly apart from his official salary.”
The Trump team, desperate for a dismissal, argued this is an incorrect view of “emolument.” They claim that not only does the clause not apply to the president — the highest representative in the land, remember — but that it only counts if it’s physically placed within the hand of a politician and they, in turn, outright say the trade will result in a specific favor.
Such an argument shows their obtuse disregard of how bribery, or just trade through money, works in modern capitalism. This isn’t some totalitarian state where the corrupt flaunt their conflicting interests proudly. The Trump administration rides that line of unsubtle, granted, but most have the wherewithal to engage in some degree of secrecy. You can’t pay for your meal and not expect quality service from the business. Why doesn’t the same apply to President Trump, a man who’s currently occupying two jobs — both real estate mogul and U.S. president — where governments are both customers and diplomatic lobbyists.
How is this, in any way, considered ethical?
“Sole or substantial ownership of a business that receives hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year in revenue from one of its hotel properties where foreign and domestic governments are known to stay (often with the express purpose of cultivating the President’s good graces) most definitely raises the potential for undue influence, and would be well within the contemplation of the Clauses,” Messitte concluded his decision.
This is a nightmare for the president — or, at least, one nightmare — which could have far more constitutional merit than the Democrats’ overblown claim of “Russian collusion” or payments to porn stars being tantamount to “treason.”