Trump’s Stand on Saudi Murder Boosts Emoluments Lawsuit, AGs Say

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s continued support for Saudi Arabia even after a reported CIA finding that its crown prince ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi bolsters a lawsuit over the president’s financial dealings with foreign governments, according to the attorney general for Washington, D.C.

The District of Columbia’s AG, Karl Racine, together with his Maryland counterpart, Brian Frosh, accuse Trump in the lawsuit of violating the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clauses by profiting from his presidency. To prevent the corruption of policymaking, the rules forbid presidents to take payments of any kind from foreign or domestic sovereigns.

Trump’s Stand on Saudi Murder Boosts Emoluments Lawsuit, AGs Say

The two Democrats claim the president is trampling on the rarely tested restrictions by allowing the Trump Organization’s luxury Washington hotel to do business with a host of foreign powers, including Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

“People shouldn’t have to worry that we’re going soft on Jamal Khashoggi’s murderers because the president has a financial interest and financial relationship with them,” Racine said in an interview during a meeting of the Democratic Attorneys General Association in Washington this month.

The lawsuit hit an obstacle Thursday when a federal appeals court put it on hold, giving Trump a chance to get it thrown out. But if it proceeds, the suit -- one of at least three alleging Trump is violating the emoluments clauses -- will be the first to require him to surrender records. Racine and Frosh have issued subpoenas to about a dozen of his business entities to find out how much money the Trump International Hotel gets from various governments and how profit flows to the president’s trust.

Since the election, the hotel “has specifically marketed itself to the diplomatic community,” pitching about 100 diplomats scarcely a week after the voting, the two attorneys general claim in the lawsuit, filed last year in federal court in Maryland.

According to the complaint, an agent of the Saudi Embassy reported paying the hotel about $270,000 for lodging, catering and parking between October 2016 and March 2017, after Trump said in 2015 he got along “great” with Saudi Arabia because of his business dealings with the kingdom.

“The whole purpose of the emoluments clause is to ensure the president of the United States is making decisions based on the national interest, not his personal interests, including his pocketbook,” Racine said in the interview.

Frosh, a frequent Trump critic, said the president’s approach to his office and business affairs is effectively a campaign to “make Trump rich again.”

Trump’s Stand on Saudi Murder Boosts Emoluments Lawsuit, AGs Say

“If it’s quid pro quo, that’s bribery -- if he’s saying, ‘You come spend 270,000 bucks at my hotel and in return I’ll stand up for you when you murder people in your legations,’ ” Frosh said in an interview during the AGs’ meeting, adding he thinks the lawsuit can prevail even without showing such an explicit exchange.

The White House and the Trump Organization didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The president has sought to play down the crown prince’s alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded the crown prince ordered the assassination, according to a number of news organizations, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Trump said the CIA hasn’t made a judgment. In an interview with Fox News last month, he said, “Well, will anybody really know?”

That stance has angered leaders in his own party. The Republican-led Senate voted last week to withdraw support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and hold the crown prince responsible for the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S.-based columnist for the Post.

Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston who has a narrow view of emoluments, said it’s a stretch to suggest that Trump’s reaction to Khashoggi’s killing is related to any financial dealings between Trump’s company and Saudi Arabia. It could simply be his affinity for authoritarians and dislike of the news media, he said.

“Trump doesn’t care about journalists -- he thinks they’re the enemy of the people,” Blackman said. “I would need to see a lot more evidence before suggesting President Trump’s position on the Khashoggi murder is based on business interests.”

The Justice Department says Trump has avoided profiting from business with foreign governments by donating the money to the Treasury. The AGs say that’s impossible to verify without seeing records and that such payments are barred anyway.

“He’s trying to haggle over the terms of the emoluments clause, and the United States Constitution is not negotiable,” Frosh said. “It’s there in black and white.”

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