Attorneys general for Maryland and the District of Columbia filed an anti-corruption lawsuit against President Trump on Monday, arguing that he is violating the Constitution by using his office to unjustly enrich himself.
It is the latest effort by politicians in blue states to challenge Trump in the courts and put a spotlight on the unusual conflicts of interest that arise when a billionaire business owner occupies the White House.
Their suit recites a now-familiar complaint that Trump, by retaining ownership of his hotels and other properties, is violating the ban on a U.S. official accepting "any present [or] Emolument … of any kind whatsoever from .. .any foreign state." They cite reports that the embassies of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are booking expensive rooms and holding events at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, possibly seeking to win favor with the president.
The constitutional ban on emoluments "helps ensure that the president serves with undivided loyalty to the American people, and the American people only," they said in the suit. "Never before has a president acted with such disregard for this constitutional prescription."
The suit may be less important for what it says than for who filed it. Maryland and D.C. contend that as a "sovereign" entities, they have a special standing to sue the president in court.
A similar suit over foreign emoluments was filed in January by an ethics group known as CREW, for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, and it was later joined by a restaurant and some private hotels. They too alleged Trump was violating the Constitution and that their businesses were being hurt by the unfair competition.
CREW's lawyers are part of the suit filed Monday, and they argued that Maryland and D.C. are suffering real injuries because some of their hotels and meeting areas are losing business to Trump's properties. "The district and Maryland have the authority and right to vindicate their interest in providing and preserving a level playing field in the hospitality industry," they said.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee denounced the suit as "partisan grandstanding" by the state attorneys. "This lawsuit brought against our president is absurd," said the RNC's Lindsay Jancek. "The American people elected President Trump to lead this country, and it is time Democrats end their efforts to delegitimize his presidency."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the suit appeared to repeat the earlier complaint from CREW. "It's the same lawyers," he said. "We will continue to move to dismiss this case in the normal course of business."
The Justice Department has urged a federal judge to throw out CREW's suit on the grounds its plaintiffs do not have standing. Usually federal courts have said that a plaintiff must show that he or she has suffered a specific injury, even when asserting a constitutional principle.
But in recent years, states and their politically minded state attorneys have been getting in the courthouse door.
In 2007, lawyers representing Democratic-controlled states won a major victory on climate change when the Supreme Court agreed, by a 5-4 vote, that they had standing to sue the George W. Bush administration for its failure to regulate greenhouse gases.
And during President Obama's term, red states won standing to sue the administration over the healthcare law and the executive orders on immigration. For example, federal judges in Texas ruled the state had standing to sue the president because it would spend more money if more immigrants sought drivers licenses.
Harvard University law professor Laurence H. Tribe said the trend in favor of state standing bodes well for the lawsuit.
"In recent years, there has been a rapid expansion in the notion that the states must play an important role in protecting their rights — and at times, the rights of their citizens," Tribe and attorney Joshua Matz wrote Monday on the "Take Care" blog, which focuses on executive power. "Conservatives, in particular, latched on to more robust views of state standing under the Obama administration, rallying around the state of Texas as it became a full-time anti-Obama litigation shop," they said. More recently, the states of Washington, Oregon and Hawaii led lawsuits to challenge Trump's temporary ban on foreign travel, they said.
If Maryland and D.C. survive a motion to dismiss their suit, they are likely to seek more information on Trump's finances, including his tax returns, which the president has refused to release.
The suit also cites hidden benefits that Trump may be receiving. For example, it says the president, through his family-owned organization, "is seeking a $32 million historic preservation tax credit for Trump International Hotel. Approval of this credit is at the discretion of the National Park Service," it said. If approved, the tax credit would offset some of the cost of rehabilitating the building that includes the hotel.
If the states win their suit, Maryland Atty. Gen. Brian Frosh said, they would seek an order requiring the president to divest himself of his business holdings.
1:20 p.m.: This article was updated with the White House comment.