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Ethics Experts File Lawsuit Saying Trump's Overseas Interests Violate Constitution

When interests such as the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., take money from foreign governments, it's a potential violation of the Constitution, according to the group that filed the lawsuit.
Alex Brandon

Updated at 12 p.m. ET

A team of ethics experts and legal scholars filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday morning that says President Trump's overseas businesses violate the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which bars presidents from taking money from foreign governments.

The group says it is asking the court "to stop Trump from violating the Constitution by illegally receiving payments from foreign governments" with ties to Trump interests. The lawsuit states that:

"These violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause pose a grave threat to the United States and its citizens. As the Framers were aware, private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders, and entanglements between American officials and foreign powers could pose a creeping, insidious threat to the Republic."

The lawsuit cites numerous examples of how Trump stands to make money by doing business with companies and other entities linked to foreign government.

For example, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which is owned by the Chinese government, is a tenant at Trump Tower in New York, and its lease is due to expire during Trump's term, the suit says. This could mean that the Chinese government will be in negotiations with the Trump Organization to renew the lease.

Another tenant is the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, which is owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, the lawsuit notes.

The suit also says that Trump collects royalties from his TV show The Apprentice and its various spinoffs, many of which air on broadcast networks owned or controlled by foreign governments.

It also cites numerous examples of Trump properties in Indonesia, Turkey, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Scotland that require various government permits and exemptions.

"When Trump the president sits down to negotiate trade deals with these countries, the American people will have no way of knowing whether he will also be thinking about the profits of Trump the businessman," according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is part of the suit.

CREW says in the suit that it has been harmed by Trump's conflicts of interest because as a government-ethics watchdog, it has been forced to put more time and resources into opposing and publicizing them.

The legal scholars and former White House ethics officials filing the lawsuit include Richard Painter, ethics adviser to President George W. Bush; Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe; Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine; and Supreme Court litigator Deepak Gupta.

Former Obama administration ethics adviser Norman Eisen told Morning Edition recently that Trump's business ties violate the Emoluments Clause in numerous ways:

"We need travel no further than a few blocks from the White House, the Trump Hotel. There's been controversy now about whether or not they're pressuring governments to leave other hotels in Washington and come to their hotel.

"Whether those allegations are proven or not, there can be no question that the Trump Hotel in D.C. is aggressively seeking business from foreign governments. Once Mr. Trump takes the oath of office, that will be a violation of the Constitution."

It remains to be seen how the lawsuit will be received, because the courts have never ruled on how the Emoluments Clause relates to the president. Trump's lawyers have already indicated they will oppose the suit.

As The New York Times noted:

"The president's lawyers have argued that the constitutional provision does not apply to fair-market payments, such as a standard hotel room bill, and is intended only to prevent federal officials from accepting a special consideration or gift from a foreign power."

"No one would have thought when the Constitution was written that paying your hotel bill was an emolument," Trump lawyer Sheri Dillon told a news conference earlier this month.

"This is purely harassment for political gain, and, frankly, I find it very, very sad," Trump's son Eric told the Times.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
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