Donald Trump sued over business ties as attorneys general allege 'unprecedented constitutional violations'

The lawsuits could force Mr Trump to release his personal tax returns

Clark Mindock
New York
Monday 12 June 2017 16:31 BST
The President’s business ties have some concerned he is benefiting personally from his office
The President’s business ties have some concerned he is benefiting personally from his office (Getty)

Donald Trump’s continued ties to the business empire that he built as a private citizen violates anti-corruption clauses in the US Constitution, an unprecedented lawsuit aimed at the President alleges.

Attorneys General for the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland charge in the lawsuit that Mr Trump’s businesses have accepted millions in payments and benefits from foreign governments since the President took the oath of office, raising conflict of interest concerns at a scale unseen before in American politics.

Since Mr Trump decided to maintain his financial interests in his global business empire he is committing “unprecedented constitutional violations” by accepting those payments, the lawsuit says. It claims those international financial interests have made Mr Trump “deeply enmeshed with a legion of foreign and domestic government actors” while undermining the integrity of the American political system.

“The President’s conflicts of interest threaten our democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said after filing the lawsuit. “We cannot treat the President’s ongoing violations of the Constitution, and his disregard of the rights of the American people as the new acceptable status quo.”

Mr Trump broke from the tradition of incoming US presidents placing their business assets into a blind trust in order to avoid conflicts of interest. That tradition has been seen as key to ensuring the independence of the president when dealing with foreign actors.

“Fundamental to a president’s fidelity [to faithfully execute his oath of office] is the Constitution’s demand that the president … disentangle his private finances from those of domestic and foreign powers,” the lawsuit reads. “Never before has a president acted with such disregard for this constitutional prescription.”

The lawsuit has the potential to end up before the Supreme Court if a federal judge allows the case to proceed. That’s because attorneys would request that Mr Trump’s personal tax returns be provided as a part of the discovery process, which Mr Trump appears likely to fight.

“This case is, at its core, about the right of Marylanders, residents of the District of Columbia and all Americans to have honest government,” Mr Frosh told The Washington Post before filing the lawsuit. “We’ll need to see his financial records, his taxes that he has refused to release.”

The two Democratic Attorneys General indicated that they were moved to file the lawsuit at least in part because Republicans in Congress haven’t taken the President’s potential conflicts of interest seriously.

“We have a duty to enforce the law, and that’s why we are taking action today,” DC Attorney General Karl Racine said.

A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee called the lawsuit “absurd”.

Mr Trump has been committed to “complete transparency and compliance with the law”, Lindsay Jancek said. The lawsuit represents “the kind of partisan grandstanding others across the country have come to despise”.

The highest profile example of potential conflicts of interest arising from Mr Trump’s business ties comes in the form of the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The President’s critics argue that foreign actors have an incentive to schedule stays there, and that the hotel may be drawing business away from other event spaces including the taxpayer-owned DC convention centre, and another taxpayer subsidised convention centre in Maryland.

The Trump administration has argued in other lawsuits that the President is not violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution because the hotel is charging market-rate prices in Trump-owned businesses. The emoluments clause was conceived by the framers of the Constitution in an attempt to ensure that the US government remains independent from foreign actors, and to ensure that American office holders don’t exploit their positions for personal financial gain.

“In the emoluments clauses, we have these ancient air bags that were placed in the Constitution by the framers that are now being deployed,” Norman Eisen, a former chief White House ethics lawyer for the Obama White House, said. “Trump is the framers’ worst-case scenario; a president who would seize office and attempt to exploit his position for personal financial gain with every governmental entity imaginable, across the United States or around the world.”

The US Department of Justice declined to comment on the filed lawsuit, and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the case.

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