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Last year, an artist projected "Pay Trump bribes here" and "Emoluments Welcome" onto the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. to protest President Donald Trump's refusal to divest from his businesses. (Photo: @igorvolsky/Twitter)

In 'Watershed Moment,' Federal Judge Allows Emoluments Lawsuit, Challenging Trump's Refusal to Divest Assets, to Proceed

"We are one step closer to stopping President Trump from violating the Constitution's original anti-corruption provisions."

Julia Conley

A government watchdog claimed its latest victory on Wednesday as a federal judge rejected President Donald Trump's bid to block a lawsuit challenging his continued involvement with his businesses—which ethics groups say amounts to a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Peter Missette did not accept the Trump administration's argument that a violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause—which states that a president cannot accept gifts or benefits from state officials or foreign governments—must involve a bribe that is explicitly offered to the president.

With Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) acting as co-counsel, the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia have argued in their lawsuit that the frequent use of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. by state governors and foreign officials constitutes illegal payments to the president.

"The court determines that plaintiffs have convincingly argued that the term 'emolument' in both the foreign and domestic Emoluments Clauses, with slight refinements that the court will address, means any 'profit,' 'gain,' or 'advantage' and that accordingly they have stated claims to the effect that the president, in certain instances, has violated both theforeign and domestic Clauses," Missette wrote in his ruling.

The Trump International Hotel has rented space "to the embassies of Kuwait and the Philippines and hosted visiting leaders from Malaysia and Romania," since Trump took office, and has reported $150,000 in "foreign profits" in the last year, according to the Washington Post.

Trump has not fully divested from the Trump Organization, which owns the hotel and his other properties. Instead, he handed over control of the business to his two eldest sons, Eric and Donald, Jr., but receives updates on the organization's finances and is able to withdraw funds from it at any time.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, lauded Missette's decision as marking "a historic day for the Constitution."

"Americans need to know that their president is acting in their interest and not in the interest of his private businesses," Bookbinder said in a statement. "President Trump has refused again and again to separate himself from his business empire to avoid pervasive conflicts of interest and constitutional violations. A court has now decided that the Emoluments Clauses, put in place by the framers of the Constitution to protect against corruption, are broad and can be enforced in court."

CREW Chair Norm Eisen was among the Trump critics who weighed in on social media.

Missette directed the two parties to determine a timeline for the case's discovery phase, in which the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C. would be able to gather evidence of wrongdoing within Trump's financial records. However, the Justice Department could seek an emergency stay and appeal the decision.

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