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D.C., Maryland Attorneys General Sue President Over Foreign Payments To Trump DC Hotel

The Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office building on D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue is the at the center of the latest allegations of wrongdoing facing President Donald Trump.

Maryland AG Brian Frosh and D.C. AG Karl Racine at a 2017 press conference

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced a lawsuit against Trump for accepting foreign payments at the hotel while failing to divest himself from his business.

The lawsuit alleges Trump violated the U.S. Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments.

"As I look out the window and see the tower of the Trump International Hotel, we know exactly what's going on every single day," Racine said. "We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favor with the President of the United States."

Racine cited Saudi Arabia as one example of a country that is involved in major policy decisions currently in front of Trump that he said has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the D.C. hotel. 

Trump refused to fully divest himself from his businesses upon taking office, revealing an arrangement in January that would put his assets in a trust and allow him to regain control of the company after leaving office.

The entrance to the Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office building in D.C.

In addition to citing the foreign emoluments clause, the attorneys general are also pointing to the domestic emoluments clause, which states the president may only receive a set pay and no other gifts from the federal government or the states. At the press conference, both clauses were written up on placards on either side of the attorneys general.

On the domestic side, they argue that the General Services Administration wrongfully allowed Trump to continue leasing the Old Post Office Pavilion from the federal government, despite a clause in the lease saying no elected official could benefit from it.

"His Post Office hotel is an emolument," Frosh said. "The fact that he's got a lease from the U.S. government and the lease itself says it can't be held in any part by an official of the U.S. government, that's an emolument. He's granted it to himself."

The Trump International Hotel, a $200M restoration of the historic building, opened in September. It was designed by Beyer Blinder Belle architect Hany Hassan and features 263 guest rooms plus a 13K SF ballroom. 

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington's Norm Eisen

This lawsuit is not the first Trump has faced over foreign payments at his D.C. hotel, but it is the first to come from local governments. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a similar emoluments clause suit in January, and a D.C. restaurant filed suit in March claiming the Trump hotel had an unfair business advantage.

CREW Board Chairman Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama's chief White House ethics lawyer, told the Washington Post that D.C. and Maryland are the "perfect plaintiffs" for such a suit because states have a say in ensuring the constitution is enforced.

Eisen, who was in attendance at Monday's conference, spoke at the end to defend CREW after one reporter suggested it was partisan. He pointed out that George W. Bush's ethics counsel is CREW's vice chair and argued this should not be a partisan issue.

"We've heard from around the country from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, people of every political stripe how important this is," Eisen said. "We're hopeful that others will join regardless of party ... the constitution knows no party."

To prove they have the standing to sue, the attorneys general can argue that foreign governments have hosted events at Trump's hotel that would have otherwise brought business to the District-owned Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, partially subsidized by Maryland taxpayers.

But at Monday's press conference, they declined to cite specific deals that Trump's hotel has taken from their businesses, instead focusing on his larger web of conflicts of interest. They cited examples such as China's state-run bank leasing space in Trump Tower in Manhattan, Trump doubling his Mar-A-Lago membership fee from $100K to $200K, and his indirect promotion of his properties when he visits them on the weekends. 

"The presidents conflicts of interest threaten our democracy," Frosh said. "We cannot allow the constant barrage of questionable activities to make us numb. We cannot treat the president's ongoing violations of the Constitution and his disregard of the rights of the American people as the new and acceptable status quo."

By bringing the suit, the attorneys general are asking the court to force Trump to take steps to further separate himself from his business interests and to ensure that foreign governments cannot have any influence on U.S. policy. During the discovery phase, they hope to force Trump to release his tax returns, a transparency step the president has so far refused to take. 

"My hope is that these lawsuits that are being brought will cause the Republicans in Congress, more importantly, perhaps President Trump himself, to take the very steps we're asking the court to take," Racine said.