In the days immediately before and after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the focus on the potential conflicts of interest inherent in the new president being simultaneously the owner of an international business was intense. Articles were written, lawsuits were filed, and the expectation that something would have to give was widespread.
Then, however, events intervened. The president issued a highly-controversial travel ban. He nominated a Supreme Court justice. The effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act began and ultimately crashed and burned. News cycle after news cycle was dedicated to more immediate matters, and the fact that the president and his family continued to own and operate businesses that, to all appearances, were benefiting from his position became something that was occasionally noted, but rarely emphasized.
Stories like today’s Associated Press report that Ivanka Trump’s fashion company received several preliminary copyright approvals from the Chinese government on the same day that she and her husband helped host Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House, were understandably covered less than the potential for nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula.
However, that may soon be changing. A lawsuit filed in January by the activist group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that charges Trump with violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution has now added two new plaintiffs with a credible claim of standing. That is, the ability to argue that they have actually been harmed by the president’s continued ownership of for-profit businesses while in office.
The lawsuit’s main charge is that because business enterprises like the Trump International Hotel in Washington, just a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, accepts payment from foreign governments for rooms and event space, it puts the president in violation of a constitutional ban on accepting money from foreign governments in exchange for services.
When the suit was originally filed, the standing claim seemed weak at best, with CREW asserting that it was being harmed because Trump’s conflicts effectively forced it to use its resources to file suit against him. At the time, experts said the claim was likely a placeholder for more credible standing claims that would come along later, and now some have.
Late Monday, CREW announced that an association of restaurant owners and employees and, separately, an event booker specializing in luxury hotels had joined the suit. Their allegation, in short, is that Trump’s ownership of a major hotel in downtown Washington creates pressure on the many foreign diplomatic delegations and other groups with ties to foreign governments to patronize that business rather than others.
“This isn’t about politics, I’m a registered Republican and I believe nothing is more important that our Constitutional protections,” one of the new plaintiffs, Washington-based events booker Jill Phaneuf said in a written statement released by CREW. “I joined this lawsuit because the president is taking business away from me and others with unfair business practices that violate the Constitution.”
The second new plaintiff is Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, an association representing both restaurant employees and numerous restaurant owners.
“On behalf of the nearly 25,000 workers members, 200 restaurant members, and thousands of consumer members of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, we proudly stand as plaintiff with CREW to sue the president for violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution,” said Saru Jayaraman, ROC United co-founder and co-director said in the statement.
“Undoubtedly, if foreign governments feel compelled to use Trump establishments over other restaurants especially those in our restaurant association RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards Everywhere), it hurts the restaurant industry. ROC United stands with CREW to tell the president that the age of unconstitutionality is over.”
“We would’ve liked to be dropping our case because the president got in line with the Constitution,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “Instead, the violations we anticipated when we brought our case became much more concrete.”
So far, Trump’s attorneys and spokespersons have dismissed the claim, insisting that market-rate transactions for things like hotel rooms and event spaces do not implicate the emoluments clause. Trump has also promised to donate all profits derived from foreign governments to the US Treasury, though no evidence that he is doing so has yet been presented.
The amended lawsuit is expected to be filed Tuesday morning.