NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of prominent constitutional and ethics lawyers sued President Donald Trump on Monday, accusing him of violating the U.S. Constitution by letting his hotels and other businesses accept payments from foreign governments.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington contended that Trump is “submerged in conflicts of interest” because of ties with countries such as China, India, and potentially Russia.
It seeks to stop Trump from accepting any improper payments, citing a constitutional provision known as the “emoluments” clause that bans them.
A spokeswoman for Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a law firm representing the president on ethics matters, said: “We do not comment on our clients or the work we do for them.”
The lawsuit is part of a wave of litigation expected from liberal advocacy groups against Trump, a Republican who took office on Friday.
On Jan. 11, Trump said he would retain ownership of his global business empire while president, but hand off day-to-day control to his oldest sons, Eric and Donald Jr..
Sheri Dillon, a partner at Morgan Lewis and a Trump adviser, at the time said profit generated at Trump’s hotels from foreign governments would be donated to the U.S. Treasury.
But the plaintiff said Trump’s refusal to cede ownership or set up a blind trust has resulted in conflicts of interest that leave him “poised” to violate the Constitution repeatedly while in the White House.
The emoluments clause forbids Trump and other U.S. officeholders from accepting various gifts from foreign governments without congressional approval.
According to the complaint, that means payments by foreign governments for such things as leases at Trump Tower in New York, stays at Trump’s hotels, rounds at Trump’s golf courses, and the rights to rebroadcast or create their own versions of Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice” are illegal.
The lawsuit said the Constitution’s framers intended to ban such payments, believing that “private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders, and entanglements between American officials and foreign powers could pose a creeping, insidious threat to the Republic.”
China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and the United Kingdom are among the countries with which Trump’s companies do or plan to do business, and Trump had been trying to do business with Russia for at least three decades, the complaint said.
The lawsuit also alleged that payments next month from a Washington hotel booking by the Embassy of Kuwait for its “National Day” celebration “will go directly to defendant while he is president.”
To justify its standing to sue, the plaintiff said it has been “significantly injured” by having to divert resources to the lawsuit, and field hundreds of media questions about Trump’s businesses.
Among the lawyers who worked on the complaint were constitutional scholars Laurence Tribe, from Harvard University, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Irvine’s law school.
Others include Richard Painter, who was a White House ethics lawyer under former Republican President George W. Bush.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis)
IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts