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Federal appeals court dismisses Trump emoluments case

The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., was at the center of the emoluments issue.
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., was at the center of the emoluments issue. (Linda Davidson/Washington Post)

President Donald Trump’s lawyers persuaded a federal appeals court to throw out a lawsuit claiming he is profiting from foreign-government business at his deluxe Washington hotel in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling by Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court hands a victory to the president, who can now avoid having the Democratic attorneys general in the District of Columbia and Maryland take a deep dive into his financial affairs.

“The District and Maryland’s interest in enforcing the Emoluments Clauses is so attenuated and abstract that their prosecution of this case readily provokes the question of whether this action against the president is an appropriate use of the courts, which were created to resolve real cases and controversies between the parties,” the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its decision.

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The ruling by a panel of three Republican-appointed judges leaves one surviving challenge to the president’s receipt of financial benefits from his business holdings. In that case in another court, almost 200 Congressional Democrats, led by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, are seeking a court order compelling Trump to come to them for permission before accepting any foreign-government-derived benefits, as they contend the Constitution requires him to do.

A federal appeals court in New York is also weighing whether to reinstate an emoluments case that a trial court judge dismissed.

The decision doesn’t mean Trump’s finances are entirely off limits to investigators. In addition to the pending Congressional case, federal judges in Washington and New York have rejected Trump’s attempts to quash Congressional subpoenas for financial information from his accounting firm and two banks. Congress has also sued to enforce a demand for Trump’s tax returns.

Trump handed the day-to-day control of his global business empire to his two sons and a chief financial officer before taking office but refused to divest any of his holdings including the Trump International Hotel just blocks from the White House. According to D.C. Solicitor General Loren AliKhan, Trump even hired a director of diplomatic sales.

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In their June 2017 suit, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Attorney General , Brian Frosh accused the president of benefiting from the business of at least one U.S. state, violating the second of the constitution’s two so-called emoluments clauses.

The president’s businesses reported a profit of $191,538 attributable to foreign governments in 2018, a 26 percent increase over the prior year. The Trump Organization has said it donated an equivalent sum to the Treasury.

Frosh and Racine filed their case in Maryland federal court where U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte twice declined to dismiss it, prompting Trump to turn to the regional federal appeals court in Richmond for relief.

In its decision, the appellate panel said the lawsuit by Maryland and Washington "amounts to little more than a general interest in having the law followed."