Houston Chronicle

‘Wouldn’t that be bribery?’

- By Tami Abdollah and Stephen Braun

GREENBELT, Md. — Lawyers for Maryland and the District of Columbia accused President Donald Trump in federal court Monday of “profiting on an unpreceden­ted scale” from foreign government interests using his Washington, D.C., hotel, but a Justice Department lawyer insisted Trump isn’t breaking the law because he provided no favors in return.

At issue is the Constituti­on’s “emoluments” clause, which bans federal officials from accepting benefits from foreign or state government­s without congressio­nal approval. The plaintiffs argue Trump’s D.C. hotel, which has become a magnet for foreign government­s, harms area businesses because of the president’s financial ties to its operations. No previous case on the subject has made it this far.

“This is the first oral arguments focused on the meaning of the emoluments clause in American judicial history,” said Norman Eisen, chairman of the left-leaning Citizens for Ethics and Responsibi­lity in Washington, which is co-counsel with the two jurisdicti­ons.

Emoluments question

U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte peppered lawyers for both sides over their arguments Monday, and had a particular­ly pointed exchange over Justice Department lawyer Brett Shumate’s view that emoluments required a clear, provable “quid pro quo” — an exchange for an official action.

“Wouldn’t that be bribery?” Messitte countered. “Another clause in the Constituti­on makes bribery a basis for impeachmen­t. Are you saying that Congress could consent to bribery?”

Shumate stood his ground, saying “ultimately it’s a question for Congress to decide, whether to consent or not,” adding that there needs to be corrupt intent for bribery.

But the judge pressed on, questionin­g whether “as long as the president takes the money without a corrupt intent, then it’s OK?”

Trump administra­tion lawyers have argued that earnings from such business activity, including hotel room stays, don’t qualify as emoluments. They have argued that under Maryland and D.C.’s interpreta­tion of an emolument, no federal official would even be able to own stock from a foreign company that provides profits or collects royalties.

Influence question

Lawyers for Maryland and D.C. have maintained that no actual influence is necessary to establish an emoluments clause violation.

Steven Sullivan, the solicitor general for Maryland, said that Trump’s quid-pro-quo interpreta­tion “requires circumstan­ces that amount to bribery or an employment contract.” Sullivan added: “That definition serves to protect the financial interests of Donald Trump.”

So far in Trump’s presidency, his hotel, which is in a former post office just steps from the White House, has become a popular meeting place for groups tied to foreign government­s, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. The Philippine­s is holding its Independen­ce Day celebratio­n there Tuesday.

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