A political watchdog group headed by Noah Bookbinder ’95 filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump Monday morning, accusing him of violating the Constitution and demanding that he cease taking business-related payments from foreign entities.
The organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed the suit in the Southern District of New York Monday at 9 a.m., backed by a slew of high-profile lawyers, including a renowned constitutional law professor at Harvard Law School, the dean of the University of California, Irvine Law School and a former ethics lawyer for the Obama administration. The lawsuit alleges that Trump is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits officials from accepting any present, office or title of any kind from any foreign state or entity without the consent of Congress.
“Never before have the people of the United States elected a president with business interests as vast, complicated and secret as those of Donald J. Trump,” the filed complaint reads. “Now that he has been sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States, those business interests are creating countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments and have resulted and will further result in numerous violations of [the Emoluments Clause].”
The plaintiffs do not ask for monetary compensation. Instead they ask that the court judge whether the Emoluments Clause applies to Trump as well as whether his business-related earnings from foreign sources qualify as “presents” or emoluments under the statute.
The lawsuit claims that payments made to Trump-owned entities by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, both of which lease spaces in Trump’s New York City tower, do qualify as foreign profits.
The attorneys also claim that several of Trump’s other current or prospective properties, including those in Washington, D.C., China, India, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Turkey, Scotland, Russia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines are dealings that would result in said violation. The lawsuit includes the royalties that Trump receives from redistribution of his former reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” as additional gifts without “congressional consent,” thus violating the Constitution.
Trump has said he will transfer leadership and management of the Trump Organization, which broadly oversees a large portion of the mogul’s real estate subsidies, to his two older sons. But he has not relinquished ownership of the organization and has not established a blind trust for his assets, despite vocal objection from Walter Shaub, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, who said the plan is not in accordance with what past presidents have done.
Trump and his attorneys have not refuted the notion that the Emoluments Clause applies to the presidential office. They have, however, denied that Trump’s business holdings present conflicts of interests and have argued that the clause has never been interpreted to include business transactions that have nothing to do with the presidency.
Professor Andrew Sabl, a visiting political science professor at Yale who specializes in constitutional theory and political ethics, said Trump’s claims that he does not violate conflict of interest regulations could be true. Many of them apply to various government agencies but not the executive office.
But the territory for this type of lawsuit is relatively unexplored, as past presidents have not held such nebulous assets as Trump, and none have been accused of such a constitutional conflict, Sabl said.
“Trump is unique in having decided he doesn’t care how corrupt he appears,” Sabl said. “It takes a lot of nerve to violate the spirit of conflict of interest.”
Sabl also said he would be surprised if the plaintiffs were granted standing to sue. He said that the injuries of filed suits like this one usually require more concrete injures. CREW claims in the lawsuit that Trump’s presidency has forced the group to divert resources to hold him accountable.
The plaintiffs also request that the court restrict any violation of the Emoluments Clause.
Plaintiffs said the requests address the urgent need to protect the Constitution from foreign influence.
“I am enormously proud to be filing this lawsuit to stop President Trump from putting his continuing pursuit of personal wealth, and his willingness to serve the foreign interests that feed that wealth, ahead of the interests and needs of American citizens and watchdog organizations like CREW,” Laurence Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law professor, said in a news release Monday. “It is already clear that nothing short of judicial force will end Trump’s flagrant disregard of the core barrier the Constitution’s framers erected against presidential decisions driven by personal greed or by loyalty purchased from the president by the patronage of foreign powers.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine Law School, added to Tribe’s sentiment, saying in the same release that there is “no doubt” that Trump’s dealings with international governments and related entities violate the Constitution. He said the lawsuit asks the federal court to reaffirm the statute and that Trump is not above the law.
Bookbinder, a former managing editor of the News, has led CREW since 2015.