WASHINGTON — An ethics group sued President Donald Trump on Monday, charging that he is violating the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign governments through his business empire.
The lawsuit by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington cites the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal office holders from accepting any “present, emolument, office or title” from a foreign state.
CREW characterizes itself as a “nonprofit legal watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions.”
The lawsuit argues the clause prohibits Trump’s business empire from accepting anything of value from a foreign government, including payments at his Washington hotel, without congressional consent.
At a news conference earlier this month, Trump promised to turn hotel profits from foreign governments over to the United States Treasury. But the lawsuit says that step in no way solves the constitutional violation.
“The Constitution provides for no such exception or remedy to this clause,” said the lawsuit.
Even if there were an exception, the plan would be insufficient because it has no enforcement mechanism and because it proposes to turn over only profits, not all money from foreign governments, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, seeks attorney fees but no damages. It asks that the federal court find that Trump is violating the Constitution through his business interests.
Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, is vice chairman of CREW. He said this is beyond politics.
“I want to make it clear, there’s nothing liberal about this. There are millions of Americans like myself sick and tired of big government and the concentration of wealth among a very few people who want to control our government and take away jobs from ordinary Americans,” he said.
“We’re not for big government and government spending and the rest of it. Millions of conservatives are sick and tired of corruption, and there’s nothing liberal or conservative about this.”
At Trump’s news conference, Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for Trump, dismissed concerns that accepting hotel business from foreign governments would violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause.
“No one would have thought when the Constitution was written that paying your hotel bill was an emolument,” she said.
“Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present and it has nothing to do with an office. It’s not an emolument,” she added.
On Sunday, she declined comment on the pending lawsuit against the president.
The lawyers attached to the case include CREW board chairman Norman Eisen, an ethics lawyer for President Obama, and vice-chairman Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
Constitutional law scholars Erwin Chemerinsky, Laurence H. Tribe and Zephyr Teachout, and Deepak Gupta are also on the case.