WASHINGTON - The state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump, claiming the president’s sprawling business empire violates a part of the U.S. Constitution meant to curb corruption.
The suit, filed Monday, essentially argues Trump, a real estate developer whose business interests include everything from golf courses to skyscrapers to wineries, is using the presidency to enrich himself.
“It’s unprecedented that the American people must question day after day whether decisions are made or actions taken to benefit the United States or benefit President Trump,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
The suit alleges that Trump is in violation of a previously little-known and legally untested section of the Constitution known as the emoluments clauses.
It’s the second lawsuit filed against Trump over emoluments, though legal analysts say this suit is on stronger legal standing and could eventually wind up at the Supreme Court.
The latest suit focuses in part on an emolument clause that prohibits U.S. officials from receiving gifts and other payments from foreign governments.
It takes specific aim at Trump International Hotel which opened last year within walking distance of the White House. Foreign delegations have often stayed at the hotel, leading to questions of whether they are trying to curry favor with the president.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government has important business and policy before the president of the United States, has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Trump International Hotel,” pointed out D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.
WATCH: DC Attorney General Racine on lawsuit filed Monday
Trump lawyers have argued that the emoluments clause doesn’t apply to such transactions, since the businesses will not be accepting gifts but simply paying for services rendered.
The Trump Organization has also vowed to donate any profits earned from foreign officials staying at Trump hotels to the U.S. Treasury, though there is some question as to how much effort the organization will make to see whether its guests work for foreign governments.
Another emoluments clause specifies that the president cannot receive any payment for services other than as president. On that front, Trump may be vulnerable, says Kate Belinski, a D.C. lawyer who focuses on political law.
“There may not be anything illegal about foreign dignitaries staying at those properties, but just that he’s receiving additional compensation from those stays could potentially be a violation of the emoluments clause,” she says.
But Belinski, a partner with Nossaman LLP, says many other aspects of the case remain unclear, noting that the emoluments clause has not been tested legally.
“This is really uncharted territory with this emoluments clause. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, will be interesting to see how the courts grapple with it, and at the end of the day it will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court decides,” she says.
At a briefing Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer shrugged off the suit, pointing out that it was brought by two Democratic attorneys general. “It’s not hard to conclude that partisan politics were part of the motivation behind the scene,” Spicer said.
Trump has handed control of his business empire to his two adult sons. But he’s retained ownership of the company, a move that has drawn persistent complaints from his critics.