Courts & Corrections

Delegation joins constitutional lawsuit against Trump

President Donald Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore
Vermont’s congressional delegation has joined nearly 200 fellow members of Congress in a legal action accusing President Donald Trump of violating a clause of the Constitution barring him from accepting gifts or other benefits from foreign countries.

“Nobody’s above the law,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Tuesday in a news conference in the Capitol. “Every member of Congress has to follow it, every one of you has to follow it, the president has to follow it. And [Trump’s] ignoring this. It’s a constitutional safeguard that protects us all.”

“Complying with the Constitution is not optional,” Leahy added.

In a Facebook post last week, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced his support of the lawsuit.

“The American people should have every confidence that decisions made by President Donald J. Trump are in the best interest of our country rather than his personal financial interests,” Welch wrote. “Divesting all his financial holdings would eliminate any real or perceived conflict of interest. Yet, he refuses to do so.”

A spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not provide a statement from the senator regarding the suit.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Democratic lawmakers accuses Trump of violating the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution.

The obscure clause, Article I, Section 9, states: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, 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.”

Because a sitting president has never faced a challenge in court under the emoluments clause, it is unclear who has grounds to sue the commander in chief.

A group of constitutional scholars — including Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor who grew up in Norwich — has already filed suit alleging Trump is in violation of the emoluments clause. But it’s unclear if a judge will rule that the scholars have standing to sue Trump.

The members of Congress suing the president claim they clearly have standing as the Constitution states that any official must obtain “the consent of Congress” before accepting any gifts from a foreign actor or state.

Trump has business interests in at least 20 countries, according to The New York Times. Foreign diplomats are staying at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, and nations across the world are engaged with Trump’s enterprises. Both China and Russia have recently approved key Trump trademarks, and his business empire is brokering deals in states including Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

While Trump initially promised to sever all his business ties as president, he has backtracked. His family members still run The Trump Organization, and the president still benefits financially from his foreign properties.

For months, Leahy has raised concerns over Trump’s vast web of business connections.

During the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court, Leahy pressed the nominee to share his thoughts on the emoluments clause. An emoluments case could eventually come before the Supreme Court.

“What does the Constitution say the president must do if he or she receives a foreign emolument?” Leahy asked in a March hearing.

“Senator, I — that’s a good question,” Gorsuch responded. “I don’t believe it’s been fully resolved.”

“Well, I think it’s kind of easy,” Leahy returned. “The clause prohibits receipt of any emolument without the consent of the Congress.”

“Right,” Gorsuch replied.

“Now, you’re a judge,” Leahy said. “I’m, as I said, just a lawyer from a small town in Vermont. But if it says they cannot receive an emolument without the consent of the Congress, isn’t the answer pretty simple?”

Gorsuch declined to comment on Trump’s specific scenario.

Leahy also pressed Jeff Sessions on the scope of the emoluments clause during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to confirm Sessions as attorney general.

Sessions told Leahy he has “not devoted any study” to potential conflicts, including Trump Tower in New York City, where the largest tenant making rent payments is China’s state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank.

“I am not aware of the details of any of the arrangements in the case of Trump Tower and the lease in question,” Sessions wrote Leahy in supplemental testimony. “Therefore, I am not in a position to offer even an informal opinion.”

Leahy also asked Sessions who would have grounds to bring a case regarding the emoluments clause.

“I am not aware of any cases in which the foreign emoluments clause has presented a justiciable issue, and I am unable to answer that question in the abstract,” Sessions said.

In May, Leahy penned a letter to The Trump Organization seeking more information on the president’s ties to his businesses.

“Our democratic institutions derive legitimacy and public confidence through transparency,” Leahy wrote. “It is essential for the American people to know that the president’s decisions are not affected by his personal financial interest. And it is similarly imperative for the American people to trust that he is operating within the confines of the Constitution. Neither can be said at present.”

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • Dennis Works

    Explain how upholding the emoluments clause of the Constitution is “phony charges, all”. The emoluments clause has been part of the Constitution from the beginning, and the wording has been crystal clear for all who read it without bias. The clause is an anti-corruption provision of the Constitution that prevents presidents from receiving payments from foreign governments, as that opens the door wide for those same countries to seek favors in return. Of course, under the clause the Republican-controlled Congress could give Trump consent to continue to receive these payments. Why are they not clamoring to give Trump cover? Perhaps they simply do not want to become entangled in Trump’s shenanigans. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause. And note that CREW’s legal team is bi-partisan in nature, including Richard Painter and Norm Eisen, as well as Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University who is considered an authority on the Emoluments Clause. I dare say, if it were a Democratic president who refused to divest himself or herself from their business interests from which they receive large amounts of income from foreign governments you would be stumbling all over yourself to cry foul.

  • Jim Manahan

    “Nobody’s above the law,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said

    It’s incredible how hypocritical this guy can be.

    “I’m, as I said, just a lawyer from a small town in Vermont.”
    No, you were a lawyer from a small town in Vermont, and now you’re a very wealthy US Senator whose favorite pastime is partisan politics.

  • Paul Richards

    This is plowing new ground for the democrats. Democrat Presidents don’t have experiences involving the real world of businesses, real jobs and the like.Their “careers” are typically “community organizing”, perfecting the art of living off the public dole and such.They don’t believe a President can come from the real world and refuse to let anyone into their exclusive club. Any such person must not be allowed to try their hand at governing from such a place as the real world and must be destroyed.

    • Dave Bellini

      You mean like the Bush family…? Really??? Or the Gipper??? Or Nixon..?
      Real jobs like the common man…? The only modern President that held “real” everyday jobs was Harry Truman. And HE sure wasn’t a republican.

    • Phil Greenleaf

      Poppycock. Unqualified. Pure nonsense. There is sufficient reason to question the applicable work experience of all our presidents. In my lifetime only 2 presidents have big time demonstrable “real world” work experience – one from each side of the aisle. Carter knew how to get his hands dirty from an early age (FFA), served a lengthy stint in the Navy and reserves, farmed (and followed the emoluments clause when elected president), and farmed again after leaving office; later he became a gifted writer. Reagan actually worked as a type of broadcast journalist and later within the screen actors guild (a union!!).

      LBJ at least had some teaching experience and apparently did some farm work, but largely worked in politics. Nixon, to his credit, served in the Navy reserves but from the end of WW2 through his death he did nothing but leverage a law degree and odd connections into a career of “living off the dole” as you call it. Bush One, after notable military service, actually was the perfecter of the art of nurturing business interests through government service. Never has a president been more eligible for sanction on the emoluments clause. Clinton mostly worked as a lawyer and later took careful note of Bush’s business model. Bush 2 did some level of national service but soon followed his dad’s model right into the White House. Obama? As advertised, a lawyer and community organizer.

      Although you can’t refute what I just wrote – feel free to add to the tale with some facts. It seems not many presidents have much experience in this real world of yours. Now that we have that straight we can comfortably discuss how much we agree that we should be electing presidents with some dirt under their fingernails, union experience and maybe even some teaching and community organizing on their resume.

  • Phil Greenleaf

    Importantly, Dominic is correct in saying that the constitution contains fundamental tenants of the founding of the country which can then be tested by lawsuits from all angles related to statutes, laws and other ordinances which have been created based on the constitution (for example local ordinances banning hate speech have been appealed to the Supreme court and almost totally have been struck down). So in this case the lawsuit referred to in the article is not addressing a “law” (Leahy probably was wrong to invoke the overused phrase – “no one is above the law”), but is likely a targeted suit to bring further official censure to Trump’s ignorant rampage and to possibly seek damages.

    Trump clearly has broken laws continuously throughout his adult life and on into this so-called presidency, so just keep reading the real news (Democracy NOW) and there will be no shortage of info on further Trump admin legal issues.

  • Michael Dougherty

    Article concerns VT delegation’s response to Trump emoluments lawsuit; please keep responses on topic. Thanks!

  • Jim Manahan

    He saved us from the Paris Accord for starters and he defeated a corrupt Democratic candidate that would have inflicted who knows what kind of damage on our republic.