The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia filed a federal lawsuit Monday against President Donald Trump, alleging he violated the Constitution by retaining ties to his sprawling global business empire and by accepting foreign payments while in office.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh joined District counterpart Karl Racine at a news conference in announcing the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in neighboring Maryland. Much of the case is focused on allegations that Trump's real estate and business holdings violate a little-known emoluments clause of the Constitution. The provision bars the president and other government employees from accepting foreign gifts and payments without congressional approval.
"The president's conflicts of interest threaten our democracy," Frosh said. "We cannot treat the president's ongoing violations of the Constitution and his disregard of the rights of the American people as the new acceptable status quo."
"Never in the history of this country have we had a president with these kinds of extensive business entanglements," Racine said, adding that the violation was flagrant.
Trump's unique status as both president and the financial beneficiary of his global business empire raised questions about the emoluments clause of the Constitution even before he took office. Trump and his attorneys argue the clause does not cover fair-value transactions, such as hotel room payments and real estate sales.
The attorneys general aren't the first to sue Trump over emoluments. Just days after Trump's inauguration in January, the government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York. Since then, a restaurant group and two individuals in the hotel industry have joined as plaintiffs.
The Justice Department said Friday that those plaintiffs did not suffer in any way and had no standing to sue, and that it is unconstitutional to sue the president in his official capacity.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer noted that response at a White House press briefing Monday.
"This lawsuit today is just another iteration of the case that was filed by that group CREW, filed actually by the same lawyers," Spicer said. "So it's not hard to conclude that partisan politics may be one of the motivations behind the suit."
The Trump Hotel in the nation's capital affects business in the Washington area and is part of the reason the lawsuit was filed, the two Democratic officials explained. They also said their action was non-partisan, and other state attorneys general, including Republicans, were welcome to join the suit. It seeks an injunction to stop what the two alleged are the president's constitutional violations.
Racine said he hopes the lawsuit will prompt Republicans in Congress and Trump to take steps that the suit is asking the court to take.
"Again, the reason why we're here is because the president of the United States, in a wholly unprecedented fashion, has decided to maintain a sprawling international business empire that accepts money without account from foreign governments," Racine said.
Frosh said Trump regularly welcomes foreign diplomats to his hotel and appears frequently at Trump establishments, "using his role as president to raise their public profile."
"We have economic interests that are impacted, but the most salient factor is that when the president is subject to foreign influence, we have to be concerned about whether the actions he's taking — both at home and abroad — are the result of payments that he is receiving at the Trump Hotel, payments that he is receiving at Mar-a-Lago, payments that he is receiving at Trump Tower, payments that he is receiving in all of his other far-flung enterprises, and he brags about it," Frosh told The Associated Press in an earlier interview.
The lawsuit also focuses on the fact that Trump chose to retain ownership of his company when he became president. Trump said he was shifting assets into a trust managed by his sons to eliminate potential conflicts of interests.
If a federal judge allows the case to proceed, Racine and Frosh say they will demand copies of Trump's personal tax returns in court to gauge the extent of his foreign business dealings.
"Mr. Trump is unique in American history in violating the emoluments clause," Frosh said. "There is no other president whose domestic and foreign investments, the entanglements, have been so bound up with our policy and our interests, and he is the only president who has refused to disclose the extent of his holdings and interests, so yes it will be a subject of our lawsuit. We will be seeking that information."
The new lawsuit follows a private lawsuit filed in March by D.C. business owners Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts. Their pending suit contends Trump's hotel business unfairly infringes on their business -- Cork Wine Bar -- and other private businesses in the city.
"What the president is doing is unethical and unfair," Gross said Monday.