Emoluments: District Court Directs Maryland, D.C. Case to Move Forward

On July 25th, 2018, a United States District Court Judge in Greenbelt, Maryland ruled that the Attorneys General of the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia could move forward in their lawsuit against President Trump. The Attorneys General claim that the President’s actions in relation to his continued involvement in the Trump Organization—specifically the Trump Hotel—violate the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

While the Foreign Emoluments Clause bans, without Congressional approval, “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” the Domestic Clause bars the President from receiving any benefits other than his compensation from federal, state, or local governments. The Plaintiffs in this case have “convincingly argued” that an “emolument” in both the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses, is any “profit,” “gain,” or “advantage,” that one might receive. While the President claims that the Plaintiffs have interpreted the term “emolument” too broadly, the presence in the Emoluments Clauses of modifiers such as “any” and “of any kind whatever” indicates that “the term was meant to have the widest scope and applicability.”

President Trump asserts that the Emoluments Clauses do not apply to his actions at all, arguing that an “emolument” pertains only to a “payment made in connection with a particular employment over and above one’s salary,” as well as that “payments to a federal official for any independent services rendered, such as for the rental of hotel rooms or event spaces privately owned by the officeholder…are payments entirely separate and apart from an ‘emolument’ paid to the President qua President.” According to the President, the Domestic Emoluments Clause was adopted to ensure that “the President’s compensation would remain unaltered during his tenure, not to prevent him from acting on the same terms as every other citizen in transacting private business.”

Plaintiffs show that their definition of the term “emolument” is found in virtually every founding-era dictionary, while the President’s definition appears in less than 8 percent of these dictionaries. Further, a number of foreign governments have indicated that they have patronized the Trump Hotel precisely because of the President’s association with it. The judge cites that Paul LePage, governor of Maine, and his entourage patronized the Trump Hotel during a visit to Washington, D.C., at which they discussed business with the Federal Government and the President. The President also has never sought the consent of Congress for him to accept the revenues the Hotel receives.

Judge Peter J. Messitte emphasizes that although President Trump turned over leadership and management of the Trump Organization to his sons, he still, directly or indirectly, shares in the revenues that the Hotel and its accompanying restaurant, bar, and event spaces generate. He adds:

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.

The Plaintiffs also allege that the Hotel has received an “emolument” from the Federal Government by virtue of the General Services Administration on account of the lease that governs the Trump Organization’s use of the Old Post Office Building as the site of the Trump Hotel. Section 37.19 of the Old Post Office Lease states: “No… elected official of the Government of the United States…shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” However, after the President increased funding for the GSA in a proposed 2018 budget, the GSA claimed that President Trump was in compliance with the Lease. Plaintiffs also claim that in connection with the Hotel, the President has received “substantial tax concessions from the District of Columbia,” including a reduction in the Trump Organization’s 2018 tax bill for a savings of $991,367.

Ultimately, the Court agrees with the Plaintiffs’ interpretation of the term “emoluments” and acknowledges their claims regarding the President’s violation of the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses. The Court directs the parties to submit a Joint Recommendation within twenty-one days suggesting the next steps that should be taken in this case.