'Emoluments' Challenge To Donald Trump's Ethics Conflicts Gets A Big Boost

Two new parties are now claiming they're directly harmed by the president's ongoing business dealings.

NEW YORK ― An ethics watchdog that sued President Donald Trump in January over violations of the so-called foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution has added new plaintiffs to its legal challenge — all in hopes of putting the case on stronger footing.

The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an amended complaint in federal court on Tuesday that now lists as parties the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a nonprofit restaurant coalition, and Jill Phaneuf, an event planner. Both ROC United and Phaneuf claim they’ve been directly harmed by a loss of business and wages related to the Trump Organization’s dealings with foreign governments that seek its patronage.

Rather than seeking money damages from the president, Phaneuf ― who liaises with embassies and other clients seeking to do business with Washington-area hotels — and ROC United want a declaration from a federal judge that Trump’s ongoing ties to his own properties are unconstitutional.

“So long as violations of the Emoluments Clauses are permitted to continue, ROC United’s members will continue to suffer from unfair competition as foreign states, the United States, and state and local governments divert their business to restaurants in which Defendant has a financial interest,” the amended complaint asserts.

Phaneuf’s portion of the updated lawsuit alleges that her own business is taking a hit “from unfair competition as foreign states, the United States, and state and local governments divert their business to hotels in which Defendant has a financial interest.”

“These are real businesses suffering real injury.”

- Deepak Gupta

Critics of the initial CREW lawsuit said the case was likely to get thrown out of court because the ethics organization by itself had a weak case of “standing” — that is, it would have a hard time showing that its pro-transparency advocacy work was “harmed” by Trump’s business ties.

In a statement, Deepak Gupta, a member of the legal team behind the emoluments challenge, argued that now the group’s “standing” is beyond reproach.

“These are real businesses suffering real injury,” Gupta said. “Our standing to bring this suit is now irrefutable. That means that Donald Trump will have no choice but to defend his unprecedented conflicts of interest in court.”

Even some skeptics of CREW’s earlier claim to having a right to sue, such as Fordham law Professor Jed Shugerman, welcomed this new development in the case.

Both ROC United and Phaneuf “have solid claims that they are injured by President Trump’s emoluments, using his office as an illegal market advantage over his competitors by drawing business from foreign entities and from federal and state spending,” Shugerman wrote in a legal blog.

As part of the lawsuit, CREW and the new parties hope to obtain financial records showing that Trump is no longer engaging in business practices that should be out of bounds for the presidency. That may include his still-undisclosed tax returns.

More broadly, the case could offer courts — including, eventually, the Supreme Court — an opportunity to clarify the scope and meaning of the obscure emoluments clause.

By its plain terms, the constitutional provision states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

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