U.S. ethics lawsuits against Trump part of groups’ political strategy

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By Andrew Chung and Dan Levine

<span class="articleLocation”>Legal advocacy groups seeking to challenge
President Donald Trump in court over alleged conflicts of
interest said filing lawsuits is part of a larger strategy to
highlight their concerns and put political pressure on the White
House.

In a lawsuit on Monday, ethics watchdog Citizens for
Responsibility and Ethics in Washington contended payments to
Trump’s businesses for hotel rooms and office leases run afoul
of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which forbids U.S.
officeholders from accepting various gifts from foreign
governments without congressional approval.

Trump on Monday called the lawsuit “without merit,” and
legal experts have noted significant barriers to success in
court, such as whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also preparing a
lawsuit over Trump’s alleged violations of the emoluments
clause, said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. Beyond
winning favorable rulings, cases can serve to “gum up the
machinery of the government and rob the Trump administration of
momentum,” he said.

Lawsuits can also serve to frame the public debate and gain
the attention of Congress and government officials, Romero said.

“This should be an area where we let a thousand legal
flowers bloom,” he told Reuters on Tuesday.

Laurence Tribe, one of the attorneys representing CREW, said
the purpose of its lawsuit was to force Trump to abide by the
Constitution, and that he felt confident they would achieve a
favorable outcome in court.

He also said bringing the case can accomplish other goals.

“One of the things that this lawsuit will achieve is
increased public understanding of what the issue is,” he said.

Aside from the emoluments clause, conflict of interest laws
that govern the executive branch generally do not apply to the
president or vice president, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC
Irvine School of Law and another of CREW’s lawyers. Presidents
largely enjoy immunity from lawsuits arising from their official
duties.

The Office of Government Ethics sets policy for executive
branch employees, but it does not investigate complaints or
bring lawsuits. If OGE officials find evidence of wrongdoing,
they refer it to the Department of Justice for civil or criminal
prosecution.

CREW also filed a complaint with the General Services
Administration over Trump’s hotel in Washington D.C., which he
leases from the federal government. The complaint alleges the
business violates the terms of the lease, which says it cannot
be held by an elected officeholder. It is unclear whether that
issue will ultimately be litigated in the courts.

Federal courts maintain strict rules about who has the legal
right, or standing, to sue. The U.S. Department of Justice will
likely raise a standing challenge to CREW’s case in the form of
a motion to dismiss, said Deepak Gupta, another attorney
representing the group.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said it is
reviewing the complaint and would respond as appropriate.

In its lawsuit, CREW argued that it should be allowed to
bring the emoluments case because it has been forced to spend
money and divert resources away from its traditional agenda of
tracking campaign contributions and ethics monitoring. Legal
experts have said that will be a difficult argument to win.

ADDITIONAL PLAINTIFFS

Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, said CREW felt
confident it would win on standing. He also noted that
additional plaintiffs “have expressed interest in bringing
litigation, either as part of our case or others.” He declined
to identify them or discuss strategy details.

Romero also said the ACLU is seeking a “suitable plaintiff.”

Andy Grewal, a professor at the University of Iowa College
of Law, said that adding a plaintiff with more concrete
allegations, such as a hotel that claims it has lost business to
Trump’s hotels, would still be an uphill battle.

It would be hard to prove, for instance, that a diplomat
would have stayed at another hotel instead of Trump’s, he said.

Ultimately, no court has determined whether ownership by a
president or government official of a corporation that sells
products to a foreign government would violate the Constitution,
he said, and that could present an additional barrier to
success.



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