WASHINGTON – Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) — a lead plaintiff in one of two federal lawsuits arguing President Trump’s vast worldwide businesses violate a constitutional clause barring presidents from receiving gifts from foreign governments – slammed Trump Tuesday on the eve of his visit to China.
“The president of the United States of America is visiting China, and the state bank of China has offices in the Trump tower [for which the Chinese government pays rent for Trump-owned office space], and there are 40 trademarks granted by the China government to the Trump organization,” Blumenthal told reporters during a conference call Tuesday.
“After these were granted, the president ‘flip-flopped’ on trade in China. The lawsuit has particular meaning this week as President Trump travels to China.”
Blumenthal and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) have joined 194 other Democrats and Republicans in Congress in the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing Trump’s profits from foreign governments violate the obscure emoluments clause, written into the Constitution by the framers. The clause stipulates that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Chellengers assert the profits represent gifts from foreign governments, barred by the emoluments clause.
Blumenthal seized on Trump’s impending visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which begins with his arrival Wednesday afternoon.
Trump, visiting China as part of a 12-day trip to the Asia-Pacific, has repeatedly condemned the trade deficit with the Communist nation; it climbed to $347 billion last year. Last week, he called the trade deficit with China “through the roof” and “so big and bad that it’s embarrassing saying what the number is.”
But rather than harsh retaliation like broad tariffs to curb Chinese imports, analysts expect negotiations to focus on better market access and making a dent in the trade deficit.
Trump has also backed off from his hardline and repeated promises to retaliate for what he terms China’s currency manipulation.
China has extended an extraordinarily warm welcome to the U.S. president, an official “state visit-plus,” a high honor, perhaps returning a bit of Trump’s effusive praise for the Chinese president before leaving for the Asia-Pacific trip. “I like him a lot,” Trump said. “I call him a friend. He considers me a friend.”
China represents but one example where critics say Trump’s receiving profits from foreign governments in his far-flung international businesses, from hotel bookings to office and ballroom rentals, poses conflicts of interest that threaten to place his interests– and his companies’ profits — above the interests of the country.
Another federal lawsuit filed by the Washington watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and several hotel and restaurant owners challenges Trump’s receipt of money from foreign governments.
Challengers argue the emoluments clause is designed to prevent corruption, and the Washington-based Constitutional Accountability Center said in a statement Wednesday that “no one is above the law” and that Trump’s receipt of money from foreign governments clearly violates the emoluments clause.
Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School, said during the conference call that Trump’s receiving money from foreign governments poses a major conflict of interest that threatens to compromise national security.
“This is a national security case,” Koh said. “The government should act with one voice. Currently, this would allow the executive Branch to act in their private interest. This would undermine U.S. policy. This is about the government’s narrow interpretation.
The government argues in briefs that its narrow interpretation of the clause excludes Trump’s private businesses.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ellen Ratner contributed to this report.