Call it impeccable timing: A federal judge in January tossed a lawsuit claiming Donald Trump was in violation of a constitutional ban against using the presidency for financial gain from foreign governments. Less than a month later, Qatar shelled out a cool $6.5 million for new digs in the Trump World Tower in Manhattan.
The January 17 real estate transaction focuses new attention on what the aforementioned lawsuit sought to prevent: violations of the constitution’s emoluments clause.
According to the Guardian’s Jon Swaine and Julian Borger, who first reported the story, Qatari officials purchased the pricey condominium for the purpose of housing their diplomatic staff. In an email to the Guardian, the Qatari mission to the United Nations insisted that the property was “purchased due to its location, nothing more.” Trump World Tower is mere steps away from the United Nations’ Manhattan headquarters.
The purchase was made mere weeks after U.S. District Court Judge George Daniels dismissed two lawsuits which sought to make the case that Trump was in breach of his obligations under the emoluments clause. As one might imagine, the condo purchase, coming so soon on the heels of that ruling, has rankled ethics watchdogs anew. Per the Guardian:
Qatar’s new acquisition at Trump World Tower, which is in Manhattan’s Midtown East section, coincided with an intense lobbying campaign in Washington by the Qatari government amid a regional crisis that has pitted the Gulf monarchy against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which brought the lawsuit against Trump, said: “This plays to the central concern with the president’s refusal to divest from his holdings – that he would be susceptible to influence from foreign countries invested in his businesses.”
Trump’s business empire — itself a sprawling collection of real estate and business holdings — has long been of concern to the cops on the government ethics beat.
While the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recommended that the president fully divest from his assets and place those proceeds into a blind trust, the OGE has no enforcement power to impose this financial arrangement on Trump. The president has insisted that leaving his business concerns in the hands of his sons, and then promising to not discuss matters pertaining to his businesses with them while in office, provides sufficient protection against the possibility that he may be influenced by foreign governments.
Those who are more well-versed in the law regard this as a fig leaf at best, and they say a president doesn’t have to do something as outsize as selling a $6.5 million condominium to violate the emoluments clause.
In December of 2016, former Obama ethics adviser Norm Eisen, his Bush-era counterpart Richard Painter, and Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe published a paper on the matter for the Brookings Institution, titled, “The Emoluments Clause: Its Text, Meaning, and Application to Donald J. Trump.” In that paper, they lay out a fairly succinct assessment of the matter:
Wholly apart from any quid pro quo arrangements of demonstrable bribes or payoffs, the Emoluments Clause will be violated whenever a foreign diplomat stays in a Trump hotel or hosts a reception in one; whenever foreign-owned banks offer loans to Mr. Trump’s businesses or pay rent for office space in his buildings; whenever projects are jump-started or expedited or licensed or otherwise advantaged because Mr. Trump is associated with them; whenever foreign prosecutors and regulators treat a Trump entity favorably; and whenever the Trump Organization makes a profit on a business transaction with any foreign state or foreign-owned entity.
As Politico reported in December 2017, when Judge Daniels made his decision to dismiss the pair of emoluments-related cases before him, he reasoned that the plaintiffs in those cases had “failed to show injury directly related to the use of Trump’s properties by foreign officials and governments.” He went on to opine that the United States Congress had the principal duty to oversee emoluments cases, not the courts.” As Daniels wrote in his ruling:
“As the only political branch with the power to consent to violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, Congress is the appropriate body to determine whether, and to what extent, Defendant’s conduct unlawfully infringes on that power,” the judge wrote. “If Congress determines that an infringement has occurred, it is up to Congress to decide whether to challenge or acquiesce to Defendant’s conduct. As such, this case presents a non-justiciable political question.”
Nevertheless, another emoluments case brought by the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland is currently working its way through the courts. On March 28, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messite ruled that the plaintiffs had the standing to sue the president, and that the suit may proceed.