STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a basic fact of the U.S. government - lawyers for the Department of Justice are not the personal lawyers of the president. They represent the United States. But they do defend the office of the presidency, and now Justice Department lawyers are defending President Trump against scrutiny of his financial affairs. In a federal appeals court in Virginia, the lawyers are working to block the plaintiffs in a lawsuit. The suit seeks evidence to show if the president violated the constitution. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia sued President Trump almost two years ago, citing the Constitution's clauses on foreign and domestic emoluments. They allege he's been profiting whenever foreign dignitaries or state government officials spend money at his hotel in D.C. This is District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine announcing the lawsuit in June 2017.
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KARL RACINE: We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favor with the president of the United States.
OVERBY: Last December, Racine and Maryland AG Brian Frosh had begun to subpoena documents from the hotel when the Justice Department tried to block the case from going forward. That sent it from the trial court in suburban Maryland to the appeals court down in Richmond. There are two other emoluments suits moving even more slowly. But when Trump tried to draw a bright line in his State of the Union speech...
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way.
OVERBY: Congress barely reacted. There was no wave of applause. In fact, questions about Trump's business empire go far beyond the hotel near the White House. Among other things that have come under scrutiny - Trump's taxes; his insurance broker; his personal foundation, which has been shut down; the Trump Organization; hush money payoffs, the Trump Tower Moscow project and Trump golf courses. And now congressional Democrats want an investigation of security at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida beach club. Just before Trump was sworn into office back in 2017, his attorney, Sheri Dillon, told reporters he would not sell his companies, but he was sensitive to potential problems.
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SHERI DILLON: President-elect Trump wants there to be no doubt in the minds of the American public that he is completely isolating himself from his business interests.
OVERBY: Trump and Dillon may have underestimated the scope of the ethics questions.
Don Kettl is a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin.
DON KETTL: The fact that there wasn't full disclosure at the beginning and certainly wasn't full divestiture at the beginning means that it's very difficult to predict in the future what kinds of potential conflicts could surface.
OVERBY: And there are other issues out there, including the Russia investigation and ethics problems with Cabinet secretaries, all of them moving slowly toward resolution.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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