Nearly 200 congressional Democrats have filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, alleging the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violates the Constitution.
The lawsuit has the greatest number of congressional plaintiffs of any lawsuit against the president, and has few analogues in the history of the country.
“We do this not out of any sense of pleasure or partisanship, but because President Trump has left us with no other option,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Though the Constitution does not preclude federal office-holders from doing business with foreign powers, the little-known and rarely litigated Article I emoluments clause forbids public officials from accepting gifts of value or receiving special treatment in commercial dealings with foreign interests without the approval of Congress.
According to court filings, the president’s eponymous Trump Organization is composed of some 500 separate entities spanning two dozen countries, many of whom do business with foreign governments. Congressional Democrats contend that Trump has violated the emoluments clause because these entities — from which he is not divested — have done business with foreign governments.
The forthcoming litigation is the latest in a series of suits lodged against Trump over emoluments. The first such lawsuit was organized in January by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an advocacy group formerly led by Clinton aide David Brock. A number of accomplished lawyers and legal scholars are participating in the effort, including Laurence Tribe, the legendary Harvard Law School professor; Erwin Chemerinsky, incoming dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley; and Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House.
CREW’s lawsuit faces a significant procedural challenge over standing, which requires them to demonstrate that they are injured in some fashion by the Trump Organization’s dealings with foreign governments. What’s more, that injury must be a specific and particularized, not generalized or theoretical harm.
Those involved in litigation brought by congressional Democrats say that they will encounter no such standing issues, because of the special status the emoluments clause grants Congress in such controversies.
“The Framers of our Constitution gave members of Congress the responsibility to protect our democracy from foreign corruption by determining which benefits the president can and cannot receive from a foreign state,” Chemerinsky said. “When the president refuses to reveal which benefits he is receiving — much less obtain congressional consent before accepting them — he robs these members of their ability to perform their constitutional role.”
The lead senator filing the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Blumenthal served as the state’s attorney general for over 20 years, and clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun on the Supreme Court.