Trump, Democrats Clash in D.C. Court Over President's Empire

(Bloomberg) -- Congressional Democrats say without a court order they can’t force President Donald Trump to comply with a constitutional requirement to disclose the benefits he gets from foreign governments through his global business empire.

Opposing Trump’s bid to dismiss their year-old lawsuit in a Washington court on Thursday, attorneys for the lawmakers said what they know about the president’s business dealings is likely "just the tip of the iceberg."

The foreign emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to grant or deny the president permission to accept benefits from foreign governments. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal called it the document’s "premier anti-corruption provision." The Democrats are seeking an order compelling the president to notify Congress when he’s offered an emolument, giving them the option to vote on whether to let him accept it.

The president’s lawyer, Brett Shumate, asked U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan to throw out the lawsuit, arguing that the lawmakers are free to vote on whether the president can accept such benefits. Citing measures already pending in the Senate and House of Representatives, he said there’s no reason why House members couldn’t vote on their resolution today.

Sullivan probed for weaknesses in the arguments advanced by both sides after telling them at the outset of the two-hour hearing not to read too much into his questions. "My job is to make the right decision," he said. He didn’t immediately rule on Shumate’s request.

The Democrats’ lawsuit is the third attempt to block the president from profiting from his business empire without congressional approval. Among his assets are a Washington hotel frequented by foreign dignitaries and intellectual property including about 50 trademarks granted preliminary recognition by the Chinese government last year.

Trump’s company also has more than two dozen hotels and golf courses around the world, which critics and good-government watchdogs allege could be prime destinations for foreign officials seeking to curry favor. The Trump Organization has pledged to donate any profits generated from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury. That amounted to about $151,000 last year.

Trump hasn’t conceded the revenue amounts to an emolument and that’s an issue that still has to be settled.

Lawyers for the group of almost 200 Democrats who sued said a retroactive vote is pointless as the president is already reaping benefits. Any legislation passed by Congress compelling Trump’s future compliance could easily be vetoed, requiring a super-majority of legislators to override him, they said. The Republicans hold majorities in both houses.

The hearing on Thursday was held in a ceremonial courtroom to allow for more than 100 people to pack in. Outside the courthouse after the hearing, Blumenthal told reporters he and his colleagues were the only people who could enforce compliance with the emoluments clause.

"There are no other individuals who were elected by the people of the United States to exercise that right of consent," he said. "We cannot vote on what we don’t know."

In December, a U.S. judge in New York threw out a lawsuit similar to the Democrats’, which was lodged by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and hospitality industry competitors, concluding they hadn’t shown they’d been harmed by his actions.

But a Maryland federal court judge in March said attorneys general of that state and the District of Columbia had made a sufficient showing so far to let that case move forward. A second round of arguments in that case will be heard on June 11.

The cases are Blumenthal v. Trump, 17-cv-1154, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington) and The District of Columbia v. Trump, 17-cv-1596, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Greenbelt).

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