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Md. And D.C. Attorneys General Sue Trump Over His Businesses

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's business ties are the subject of another lawsuit. This time, Maryland and the District of Columbia have filed the case. Their attorneys general - both Democrats, we should mention - allege that President Trump violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer downplayed the significance of those allegations yesterday.

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SEAN SPICER: This lawsuit today is just another iteration of the case that was filed by that group CREW, so it's not hard to conclude that partisan politics may be one of the motivations behind the scene.

INSKEEP: That group, CREW, he's referring to, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a bipartisan group that filed the lawsuit earlier this year. Let's talk about this with District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, one of the parties in the lawsuit. Attorney General, welcome to the program.

KARL RACINE: It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: And to our studios here in the District of Columbia. What gives you standing? And we should explain by standing, I mean the right to sue, that you have a dog in this fight. Where - how does the - how does D.C. have standing?

RACINE: Sure. First, let me be clear that the lawsuit is based on a violation of the Constitution's anti-corruption law. That's called the Emoluments Clause.

INSKEEP: Right.

RACINE: The Emoluments Clause essentially says that any federal officer, including the president of the United States, cannot receive monies from foreign countries. And that's what's going on, as we know, with the Trump Hotel right in our backyard in Washington, D.C. The attorney general of Maryland and the attorney general of D.C. believe we have strong standing to bring the suit for two reasons.

First, as attorney general, we have an obligation to defend our residents, the residents of our states. And when the residents of our states are being harmed by a constitutional violation as fundamental as the president's receipt of money from foreign governments, that in and of itself gives us sovereign standing.

Secondly, as state attorney generals who have a piece of, if you will, business in the District of Columbia and certainly have an interest in having a level playing field for our businesses, it's important for us to take a stand when one business - the president's business - clearly has an outsized advantage over others.

INSKEEP: Let's follow up on what you said there because you said the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibits the president or others from receiving money from foreign governments.

RACINE: That's right.

INSKEEP: We should specify this is about gifts. This is about some kind of bribe going to the president of the United States. And his lawyers have argued - in fact, the Justice Department has now argued - you got to define that a little bit better. It's true the president, for example, owns a hotel in Washington, D.C., that foreign diplomats and others have been buying rooms at the hotel.

But they've said that's just a normal business payment. It's a normal business transaction. The president's company is providing a service, and the company gets paid for it. That's not a bribe, they say.

RACINE: Well, the Constitution is clear. And the Constitution doesn't provide exceptions unless Congress grants such an exception. And what the United States Constitution says is that when a federal officer, like the president of the United States, is receiving monies from foreign governments, that is a violation, again, unless Congress has provided an exception.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the Department of Justice argument that presidents going back to George Washington have had a variety of business interests?

RACINE: I would urge the readers and the listeners to take a careful look at the government's motion. It's quite remarkable. Taken to its common-sense logical extension, what the Department of Justice is saying is that any and all of Trump's businesses are open for business, and any foreign government should feel free to plow as much money as they want into the Trump businesses for the purpose of trying to curry favor with the president.

Now, look. I read the briefs. And the briefs do cite to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And the briefs candidly feebly try to make a comparison between Donald Trump and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The reality is when you look at the brief, the brief does not allege that George Washington nor Thomas Jefferson sold any farming materials or products to foreign governments. They were not being paid by England or any other government.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of the example of the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Are you prepared to show that anybody in the District of Columbia has been harmed because a foreign diplomat rents a room there as opposed to any place else? Do you have a specific person or people in Washington who've been harmed in some specific way by the president's activities?

RACINE: Let me make clear again on the basis of sovereign standing, we have standing, we argue, because of the constitutional violation and the fact that a president who is receiving monies from foreign governments in violation thereof hurts democracy, one.

Second, with respect to actual harm, there is public information - and thank God for the media for uncovering it - that foreign countries, knowing that this president likes flattery, likes people to do business in his hotels, are actually moving their business away from other hotels in the District of Columbia to curry favor with the president and going to the Trump Hotel.

INSKEEP: Harming the other hotels.

RACINE: That's exactly right.

INSKEEP: Attorney General, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

RACINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Karl Racine is the attorney general of the District of Columbia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.