President Donald Trump’s narrow definition of an “emolument” failed to win him an escape from a lawsuit by almost 200 Congressional Democrats who claim the president is violating the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan on Tuesday denied a Justice Department request to dismiss the lawsuit, filed in 2017 by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and other members of the House and Senate who claim Trump is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
The judge’s ruling would allow the Democrats to start seeking financial records from the Trump Organization in a pretrial exchange of information. The Justice Department can try to block that by appealing the ruling. Trump is already fighting congressional subpoenas for his tax information in court and has vowed to fight “all subpoenas.”
“This decision is a tremendous victory and vindication of a common sense reading of the Constitution,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The court soundly rejected the president’s absurd argument that he is above the law.”
Sullivan in September ruled the Democrats have legal standing to pursue their claim, and held off deciding on the merits. Tuesday’s 48-page decision gives a detailed explanation for ruling against the president and siding with the Democrats in a fight they say is crucial for battling corruption.
Trump and the Democrats have clashed over what the once-little-known word “emoluments” meant at the time the Founders wrote the Constitution, with Democrats using a broad definition to cover profits from Trump’s businesses and Trump seeking a narrow meaning. Sullivan said the Democrats had the more convincing argument.
Trump’s definition “disregards the ordinary meaning of the term as set forth in the vast majority of Founding-era dictionaries,” Sullivan said in his ruling. The judge also said Trump’s definition “is inconsistent with the text, structure, historical interpretation, adoption, and purpose of the clause; and is contrary to executive branch practice over the course of many years.”
Democrats argued the word is broadly defined “as any profit, gain or advantage.” The president countered that an emolument would be, for example, a payment from a foreign government for an official action or a salary from a foreign power.
The clause says that certain federal officials, including the president, can’t accept an emolument from “any King, Prince, or foreign State” without “the Consent of the Congress.” The congressional Democrats are seeking an order compelling Trump to notify Congress when he’s offered an emolument, giving them the option to vote on whether he can accept it. Blumenthal has called the emoluments clauses the Constitution’s “premier anti-corruption provision.”
Trump said he stepped down from running his $3 billion empire but retained his ownership interests, a decision the Democrats say violates the Foreign Emoluments clause because he’s getting payments from foreign governments without congressional approval.
While the Democrats claimed they’re being denied the right to vote on the benefits, attorneys for the president say the matter should be resolved in Congress, not in court.
The cases are Blumenthal v. Trump, 17-cv-1154, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington) and District of Columbia v. Trump, 17-cv-1596, U.S. District Court, District of Maryland (Greenbelt).