On June 25, 2019, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan denied a request by President Trump to put the emoluments case against him on hold. Citing the “exceptional circumstances” of the case, Justice Department lawyers believed that the case needed to be delayed – and eventually dismissed – as steps such as the civil discovery process would distract the President from carrying out his official duties. Judge Sullivan, however, disagreed, stating that, because the case is on pace to be resolved within six months, the immediate appeal sought by the Justice Department would do little to advance the case’s eventual termination. As a result, the plaintiffs in the case may now begin pursuing records from the Trump Organization, which are to include financial information, interviews, and more.
Judge Sullivan’s opinion can be read here.
This decision is one of many in Senator Richard Blumenthal et al. v. President Donald Trump. Launched in 2018 by Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Nadler (D-NY), more than 200 Democratic legislators are suing President Trump under the foreign emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause prevents the president from receiving gifts of any sort from foreign governments without congressional approval. Those suing the president believe that he is routinely violating the clause, as the Trump Organization – which the president has retained ownership of during his tenure – continues to do extensive business with foreign governments. The Kuwaiti Embassy, for example, has held the state’s National Day celebration at the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC for the past three years.
This is not the only case regarding the foreign emoluments clause against the president. The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia are suing the president under the same clause, but focusing specifically on the Trump Organization’s business as it relates to its Washington hotel. After receiving authorization to commence discovery, the attorneys general pursued an immense array of documents, including marketing materials focused specifically at foreign embassies, as well as credit card receipts and restaurant reservation information. They also subpoenaed federal agencies that potentially spent money at the hotel. But in December 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit temporarily blocked this effort. Though the court heard oral arguments from both the attorneys general and Justice Department in March, it has yet to reach a decision. Until it does, the discovery process will remain frozen.
Though the ultimate outcome of these cases remains quite distant, they have already set immense legal precedents. In the attorneys’ general case, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte’s decision to allow the case to move forward serves as the first time a federal judge has interpreted the emoluments clause and applied it to a sitting president. Progress made so far in Blumenthal v. Trump has only reinforced this ruling, suggesting that courts are willing to apply fairly broad definitions as to what qualifies as a gift under the emoluments clause.
The IELR Blog will be there to monitor the case as it progresses.