Lawsuits are old hat to President Donald Trump, but one of constitutional caliber filed by government entities is new to his roster of legal battles.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine announced in a news conference on Monday that they are suing the president for massive conflicts of interest. The lawsuit states that Trump's failure to divest himself from his personal businesses violates the constitution and poses a serious threat to United States democracy.
"The suit alleges that President Trump is flagrantly violating the Constitution,” Racine told reporters on Monday. “Never in the history of this country have we had a president with these kinds of extensive business entanglements.”
“It is unprecedented that the American people must question day after day whether decisions are made and actions are taken to benefit the United States or to benefit Donald Trump,” Frosh said during the press conference. “The president’s conflicts of interest threaten our democracy.”
Much of the complaint stems from a lawsuit filed by liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington earlier this year, but supporters of the Maryland-D.C. lawsuit hope that Racine and Frosh can push further ahead than their predecessors due to their positions in the U.S. government. Zachary Clopton, a professor of law at Cornell University, told The New York Times that the complaint has the potential to make serious legal ground as Maryland and D.C. are considered "coequal sovereigns" with the president.
The Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution is at the core of the Maryland-D.C. lawsuit. The clause prohibits federal officials from accepting any gifts or emoluments, roughly defined as fees or profits, from foreign powers. Furthermore, it prohibits the president from accepting gifts or emoluments from state governments. In Frosh's words, the Emoluments Claus was designed as a "firewall against corruption."
However, there has yet to be a clear, court-upheld interpretation of what the term "emoluments" actually means. If this lawsuit progresses, defining what constitutes emoluments will be a key element in both the plaintiff's and defendant's arguments, and the court's ruling will have long-term constitutional consequences.
In addition to accusing Trump of violating the Constitution, Frosh and Racine allege that Trump's private businesses divert customers from spending money at businesses owned, licensed, or taxed by D.C. and Maryland, ultimately damaging their economies. The complaint also argues that the president uses his power to boost his businesses' profits, essentially publicizing them with new efficacy given the influence his now-infamous name holds.
At this point, it's hard to say what this lawsuit may or may not do, particularly when you consider Trump's knack for evading justice. Still, it's hard not to feel at least a little optimistic when you see that the U.S. government, for all its recent troubles, still works, if only because there are those in office forcing it to.
“Congress has given the president a total pass,” Racine said. “State attorney generals are serving as a necessary check and balance in the Trump era where others failed.”