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.”