New Evidence of Emoluments Violations Prompts American Oversight Lawsuit

(Photo: PJMixer)

American Oversight is suing the State and Justice Departments for records related to President Donald Trump’s potential violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, specifically the leasing of a Trump property to multiple foreign governments. Yesterday, Reuters reported that at least seven foreign governments received State Department approval to rent condominiums in New York’s Trump World Tower in 2017 without the approval of Congress, as required by the Constitution.

The Trump World Tower is located near the United Nations building in New York City, and is part of the president’s widespread real-estate holdings, from which he has refused to financially divest. According to Reuters, Trump earned more than $15 million in 2017 from properties managed by the Trump Corporation, the entity that manages the Trump World Tower.

The State Department must clear all foreign governments’ use of property in the United States, and records uncovered by Reuters indicate that more foreign-government requests were sent to the department in 2017 than in the previous two years combined. But the State Department told Reuters that it screens for security and diplomatic concerns, not emoluments violations, and as a consequence, has been clearing foreign governments to pay money to the president without regard to the fact that the Constitution prohibits the president from receiving “emoluments” of any kind from foreign powers.  

In March, American Oversight filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department, asking for all correspondence from the department’s Office of Foreign Missions (OFM) to foreign governments regarding approvals of requests to lease or purchase property at the Trump World Tower. We also asked for any final legal analyses that the department conducted about how OFM should consider such requests at Trump properties, including whether and how any approvals could impact the emoluments clause. Another FOIA request sent to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel asked for any advice it prepared and provided on the matter.

American Oversight has been investigating the president’s considerable financial conflicts of interests, from the Trump International Hotel that sits a few blocks away from the White House to the sale of a federally subsidized housing complex in Brooklyn that Trump had a stake in. Recently, at least 14 government agencies told American Oversight that they had no records of general ethics guidance for spending taxpayer money at Trump-owned properties.

The State Department approvals are glaring new evidence that the president is violating the emoluments clause, and are different in kind from previous problematic transactions involving the president’s businesses. For example, Trump and the Justice Department have argued that market-rate hotel room rentals at the Trump International Hotel are not “emoluments” within the meaning of the Constitution. Setting aside the problems with that argument — which, notably, at least one court has rejected — the State Department approvals show the government operating as a broker for the president’s private business, authorizing emoluments without congressional approval.

More evidence may exist and it is critical to uncover it. Today’s lawsuit seeks records that could shed light on whether the administration properly considered such an unprecedented situation after the 2016 election. It would be concerning if the State Department or officials failed to consider the issue, or approved the leases regardless. We need answers.

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