Speed Reads

Trump v Ethics

The lawyers suing President Trump over accepting foreign payments have their first test case

On the first business day after President Trump's inauguration, a group of high-profile lawyers sued him in federal court, arguing that every time a foreign government pays for Trump Organization business services or hotel rooms, Trump violates the hitherto-obscure Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Now the lawyers have their first test case, Politico reports. When a U.S. veteran stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., from Jan. 23-26, a communications group lobbying for the Saudi government paid the bill.

The lobbying firm, Qorvis MSLGroup, has been flying vets and other activists to Washington to urge Congress to overturn a law it passed last year, over former President Barack Obama's veto, allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The Emoluments Clause prohibits U.S. officials from accepting gifts and payments from foreign governments, and it doesn't matter that Saudi Arabia didn't pay for the hotel room directly, since they will ultimately pick up the tab, says Norm Eisen, an Obama White House ethics lawyer and party to the lawsuit. "If that funneling could launder the emolument, the clause would become a dead letter," explained Harvard Law constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, another member of the legal team.

Trump pledged on Jan. 11 to work around potential conflicts by giving the profits from foreign government hotel stays to the U.S. Treasury, but has laid out no mechanism to do so. And that doesn't solve the problem anyway, ethics lawyers say, since the payment itself is the problem. The White House and the Trump Organization's ethics adviser, Bobby Burchfield, offered no comments to Politico.