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Here's Why Donald Trump Is Getting Sued By a Financial Ethics Watchdog

Jan 23, 2017

During Friday's inauguration ceremonies,while being sworn in as president, Donald Trump vowed to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

By Monday morning, Trump was being sued by an ethics watchdog for allegedly violating the Constitution.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is filing suit in New York City against the president for violating the emoluments clause, which prohibits government officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments. Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states:

no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, 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.

Trump's hotels, office buildings, golf courses, and other businesses around the globe accept payments from foreign governments. Trump recently announced his plans to separate himself from his businesses by placing control in the hands of his two sons, but CREW's suit argues that this step is an insufficient measure for ensuring that foreign business dealings with Trump the company, have no influence on Trump the president.

“We did not want to get to this point. It was our hope that President Trump would take the necessary steps to avoid violating the Constitution before he took office,” CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “He did not. His constitutional violations are immediate and serious, so we were forced to take legal action.”

In his inauguration speech, Trump repeated a point he'd made again and again throughout the long presidential campaign—that we would put "America First." The CREW lawsuit calls this idea into question. It essentially argues that Trump faces many conflicts of interest around the globe, and that it's unclear if his priority will be the country or his businesses. The lawsuit is not asking for any monetary damages, but instead has been filed with the goal of blocking Trump from receiving business payments from foreign governments without the approval of Congress.

"Trump does business with countries like China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, and now that he is President, his company’s acceptance of any benefits from the governments of those countries violates the Constitution," a CREW statement explained. "When Trump the president sits down to negotiate trade deals with these countries, the American people will have no way of knowing whether he will also be thinking about the profits of Trump the businessman."

The New York Times reported that as part of the proceedings, the legal team behind the lawsuit wants "to get a copy of Mr. Trump’s federal tax returns, which are needed to properly assess what income or other payments or loans Mr. Trump has received from foreign governments."

Trump promised many times during the campaign that he would release his tax returns, but has yet to make them public. Over the weekend, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway said that the president simply would not be releasing his tax returns, claiming that people don't care about them. Meanwhile, a new White House petition demanding that Trump release his returns has been signed by more than 250,000 people. There has been much speculation about what Trump's tax returns may reveal—possibly including deals with foreign governments or that the businessman has paid little or no federal taxes for decades.

It is unclear how far the CREW lawsuit will go in the courts. Some legal experts believe the suit has little merit, and will be thrown out soon. But this is unlikely to be the only legal action taken arguing that President Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act request "seeking documents relating President Trump’s actual or potential conflicts of interest relating to his business and family connections." ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, said that the group sought the documents because, "Trump took the oath, but he didn't take the steps necessary to ensure that he and his family’s business interests comply with the Constitution and other federal statutes."

Regarding the CREW lawsuit, Eric Trump, the president's son and vice president of the Trump Organization, told the Times, “This is purely harassment for political gain, and, frankly, I find it very, very sad.”

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