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Ethics Watchdogs Want U.S. Attorney To Investigate Trump's Business Interests

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, shown here at a December news conference, is being urged to look into whether President Trump's businesses violate the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Mark Lennihan

Updated at 6:20 p.m. ET

With Congress showing no signs of taking action, a group of ethics watchdogs is turning to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to look into whether President Trump's many business interests violate the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"Published reports indicate that the Trump Organization and related Trump business entities have been receiving payments from foreign government sources which benefit President Trump through his ownership of the Trump Organization and related business entities," according to a letter sent to Bharara. It went on:

"A failure by your office to investigate these reports and to take appropriate action will leave the nation exposed to foreign governments directly and indirectly providing payments and financial benefits to President Trump when those foreign governments may be seeking to influence Executive Branch policies and positions. This is precisely the kind of problem that the Founding Fathers acted to prevent by including the Foreign Emoluments Clause in the Constitution."

The letter was signed by Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, which sued Trump in January, alleging ethics violations, and has worked hard to keep the issue on the table. Also signing were Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, and Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, as well as former Obama ethics adviser Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, adviser to George W. Bush.

Alan Garten, attorney for the Trump Organization, told NPR in an email that the letter was "factually inaccurate, legally erroneous and politically motivated."

Bharara's office declined to comment.

The Emoluments Clause says that "no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the U.S. government], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."

The letter says "there is no question" the clause applies to Trump and that he is violating it, because of the Trump Organization's extensive business operations, many of them tied to foreign governments.

For example, tenants of Trump Tower include the Industrial Bank of China, which is owned by the Bejing government, as well as the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority. The building is partly owned by the president.

The letter notes that the Trump Organization has plans to build 20 to 30 luxury hotels in China, which will require permits from the Chinese government. The president is also part owner of a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan that carries a loan held by the government-owned Bank of China.

The Justice Department has a "broad mandate" to ensure compliance with the Emoluments Clause, the letter says. It also notes that Bharara has jurisdiction over the issue because he is the U.S. attorney of the southern district of New York, where the Trump Organization is headquartered, the letter says.

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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