A federal judge in Maryland on Wednesday denied a motion to dismiss portions of a lawsuit alleging that President Donald Trump, through his Trump International Hotel in DC and the Trump Organization, violated a constitutional clause banning gifts or advantages from foreign and domestic governments.
In his opinion, Judge Peter Messitte of the US District Court of Maryland largely sided with Maryland and Washington, DC’s definition of emolument as an “advantage.” Trump was arguing for a more restrictive definition of the term as a “gift.”
Department of Justice spokesman Andy Reuss said the department is reviewing the judge’s order.
“We continue to maintain that this case should be dismissed, a position that was shared by a New York court in a related case. The Justice Department is reviewing the order and determining next steps to continue vigorously defending the President,” Reuss said.
Maryland and Washington, DC, have argued that the Trump International Hotel’s operations put other nearby hotels and entertainment properties at a competitive disadvantage, and that the Trump Hotel got special tax concessions.
Messitte deferred a ruling on the President’s motion to dismiss the case against him in an individual capacity. However, the court is still considering whether he violated the emoluments clause in an official cap acity.
The ruling is on the President’s lawyers motion to dismiss an amended lawsuit from Washington, DC, and Maryland. An earlier motion to dismiss was also rejected.
Wednesday’s order directs parties to confer and produce a proposal on next steps for the discovery process, which may include producing tax returns, Raquel Coombs, the director of communications for Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General, told CNN.
District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine tweeted that the new developments mean “we are one step closer to stopping President Trump from violating the Constitution’s original anti-corruption provisions.”
In a statement later Wednesday, Racine said the court specifically agreed with the plaintiffs’ position “that President Trump cannot accept profits from private transactions, including those involving services given at fair market value, like those we allege are occurring at the Trump International Hotel here in the District.”
Racine added that this marked the first time a court has interpreted the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses.
Interpreting the emoluments clause
In his opinion, Messitte expansively read the term “emolument” in the Constitution to cover, and ultimately ban, the President from receiving “anything more than de minimis profit, gain, or advantage” in his private capacity.
Messitte based his interpretation on the constitutional text of the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses and his reading of the framers’ intentions, along with dictionaries and other outside sources.
Addressing the words of the provisions themselves, he wrote, “The text of both (Foreign and Domestic Emoluments) Clauses strongly indicates that the broader meaning of ‘emolument’ advanced by Plaintiffs was meant to apply. As Plaintiffs point out, the Foreign Clause bans, without Congressional approval, ‘any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.’ Use of such expansive modifiers significantly undermines the President’s argument that this Clause was meant to prohibit only payment for official services rendered in an employment-type relationship.”
Messitte said the use of “any kind whatever” was intended to ensure the broader meaning of the emolument term.
He said Trump’s narrower definition of emoluments would essentially prohibit only outright bribes.
“The President’s interpretation of the limited meaning of the Emoluments Clauses cannot be the correct one,” Messitte wrote. It “would reduce the Clauses to little more than a prohibition of bribery which, in addition to already being addressed elsewhere in the Constitution, is … a very difficult crime to prove.”
Messitte also rejected arguments from the President’s lawyers that such a broad interpretation would create absurd consequences.
“For example,” the judge wrote, “he claims that if the Court were to adopt Plaintiff’s interpretation, it would mean that a federal official’s stock holdings in a global company would violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause if some of that company’s earnings could be traced to foreign governments. … Notwithstanding the parade of horribles the President calls up, the Court does not see how the historical record reflects anything other than an intention that the Emoluments Clauses function as broad anti-corruption provisions.”
Correction: The headline and first paragraph of this story have been corrected to reflect that the Trump Organization and Trump International Hotel are not named parties in the lawsuit against the President.
CNN’s Joan Biskupic and Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.