WEEK ONE: Is Donald Trump already violating the U.S. Constitution?
Speaking of Trump and ethics, a high-powered legal team of constitutional and ethical experts is filing a federal lawsuit today to “to stop President Trump from violating the Constitution by illegally receiving payments from foreign governments.”
The lawsuit comes in response to Trump's refusal to divest or place his businesses in a blind trust. Instead, Trump has said he will turn over control of his various business interests to his adult sons (though there's no evidence that he has even done that yet
). The potential for conflicts of interest and corruption appears to be massive, precisely the sort of mess that certain provisions in the U.S. Constitution were meant to avoid.
“We did not want to get to this point," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Washington-based nonprofit filing the lawsuit, in a press release
. "It was our hope that President Trump would take the necessary steps to avoid violating the Constitution before he took office. He did not. His constitutional violations are immediate and serious, so we were forced to take legal action.”
The lawsuit alleges that Trump is in violation of the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the president from receiving payments or gifts "of any kind whatever, from any...foreign State” without the approval of Congress. CREW says that Trump's various business interests are in violation of the emoluments clause with respect to payments for hotels, golf courses, leases in his buildings, and real estate deals, as well as loans from banks controlled by foreign governments. Team Trump says everything is legal and above board, nothing to see here (son Eric told the New York Times
, "This is purely harassment for political gain, and, frankly, I find it very, very sad").
Worth noting that Trump's tax returns could be material to the lawsuit. Trump directly lied numerous times to the American people during the campaign, promising that he would release his tax returns — as presidential candidates from both major parties have for decades as a matter of transparency — after a supposed audit was completed. A Trump staffer finally admitted yesterday that this was all a ruse and Trump has no intention of ever releasing the tax returns. Theoretically, a lawsuit like this could force Trump to turn over his tax returns in discovery, making public whatever it is he is so desperate to hide. (Before we even get that far, however, I'd expect Trump's gaggle of lawyers to dispute CREW's standing to sue. This year will be interesting.)
CREW's team includes a Harvard constitutional scholar, ethics lawyers from the Obama and Bush administration, a star Supreme Court litigator and others.
More from their press release:
Since Trump refused to divest from his businesses, he is now getting cash and favors from foreign governments, through guests and events at his hotels, leases in his buildings, and valuable real estate deals abroad. Trump does business with countries like China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, and now that he is President, his company’s acceptance of any benefits from the governments of those countries violates the Constitution. 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.
“President Trump has made his slogan ‘America First,’” said Bookbinder. “So you would think he would want to strictly follow the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, since it was written to ensure our government officials are thinking of Americans first, and not foreign governments.”