WASHINGTON — A federal judge appeared to sympathize with the nearly 200 congressional Democrats suing President Donald Trump for violating the Constitution by accepting foreign state favors without first presenting them to Congress and gaining their consent.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan spiritedly grilled attorneys on both sides for more than two hours Thursday as Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas sat listening to the arguments in the District of Columbia courtroom.
While there are three such cases arguing the president is violating the Constitutional "emoluments clause," Thursday's case differs in that the plaintiffs in the suit — members of Congress — are mentioned in the clause itself, and they believe that Congress not only has a right but is required, as part of their jobs, to weigh in on potential foreign government favors.
"It's frustrating to hear frustration," Sullivan said in court Thursday. "They can't do the job the voters sent them to Capitol Hill to do."
Thursday's hearing dealt solely with the question of whether the congressional Democrats have standing, or have experienced harm.
Sullivan appeared well versed in the minutiae of the case and pushed back on both sides' arguments with his questioning. He said that his initial reaction is that a jury probably wouldn't be required should the case move forward, and that it might be dealt with quickly.
A decision on whether the government wins its motion to dismiss or if it the case will be allowed to proceed, could come at any time. Plaintiffs are asking the judge to ultimately order Trump to stop accepting foreign state favors and to present them to Congress for their approval.
In a news conference after the hearing, Blumenthal, who is leading the effort, said he was "tremendously encouraged" and "very hopeful" by the judge's questioning.
"Each of us has suffered the injury that this provision was meant to prevent," Blumenthal said, while holding up a copy of the Constitution. "We have been denied the right to vote and the responsibility to consent to the president of the United States taking, repeatedly, gifts, benefits and payments from foreign governments."
The case cites as foreign government favors Chinese government trademarks for Trump companies, payments for hotel room stays and event space rentals by representatives of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and proceeds from Chinese or Emirati-linked government purchases of office space in Trump Tower.
Ethics experts say the Constitution's emoluments clause was created by the Founding Fathers to ensure that government officials act with the interests of the American public in mind instead of their own pocketbooks. Since then, it has been applied to the lowest of government of officials up to the president without a court challenge.
Unlike prior presidents, Trump chose not to divest from his assets and he remains the owner of the Trump Organization, a sprawling business empire with 550 entities in more than 20 countries that include branded hotels, golf courses, licensing deals and other interests. His Washington hotel just steps from the White House has become a magnet for foreign governments, including groups tied to Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
The government's Brett Shumate argued that members of Congress lack standing because "this is a political dispute" and the congressional Democrats who are suing are being injured by their colleagues who won't act — not the president.
"These disputes have historically been worked out through the political process," Shumate told the judge, adding that pending bills in both houses of Congress on the issue. "There are political remedies, and the one thing they want, they could do themselves. They could vote today."
But Brianne Gorod, the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center's chief counsel, argued that the lack of a vote is essentially a lack of consent because the law requires Congress to explicitly vote to approve a foreign state favor before the president can accept it. The burden is on the president to convince Congress.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.