The Court Challenge Begins: Is Trump Taking Unconstitutional Emoluments? On Wednesday, a federal judge will hear arguments in a case that asks: Is President Trump taking the kind of benefits banned by the Constitution? Step 1 is deciding whether plaintiffs have standing.


The Court Challenge Begins: Is Trump Taking Unconstitutional Emoluments?

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A group challenging Donald Trump's dual roles as president and businessman will have its day in court tomorrow. A federal judge in Manhattan hears preliminary arguments. It's 1 of 3 lawsuits that accuse the president of violating the Constitution. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It was January 20 when President Trump took the oath of office.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Preserve, protect and defend...

JOHN ROBERTS: The Constitution of the United States.

TRUMP: ...The Constitution of the United States.

OVERBY: Three days later, a group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sued him for violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

NOAH BOOKBINDER: This is a pretty big deal.

OVERBY: Noah Bookbinder is CREW's executive director.

BOOKBINDER: It's the first time that a court is going to be hearing arguments about the Emoluments Clause, what an emolument is, what the president actually is prohibited from doing under the Constitution.

OVERBY: Emoluments were a quiet little corner of constitutional law right up until President Trump took office while holding onto his sprawling business empire. The big question tomorrow is legal standing. Do CREW and its co-plaintiffs have legal interests that justify taking Trump to court? They say they do. The plaintiffs include several hotels and restaurants in New York City, an association of restaurants and restaurant workers and an events booker in Washington, D.C. They say they've lost business to Trump establishments, a claim that the Justice Department argues against. If the plaintiffs win on the standing question...

BOOKBINDER: The next phase of the case would be discovery.

OVERBY: Bookbinder says they'd want the Trump organization to turn over documents.

BOOKBINDER: Business records for the Trump companies and other relevant documents, potentially including tax returns that'll tell us what foreign government payments and what state government payments the president's companies may be receiving in violation of the Constitution.

OVERBY: Then there's the definition of emolument. CREW asserts a broad one and cites dictionaries in use at the time the Constitution was drafted. DOJ uses a narrower definition, just as Trump's lawyer Sheri Dillon did last January.


SHERI DILLON: No one would have thought when the Constitution was written that paying your hotel bill was an emolument. Instead, it would have been thought of as a value-for-value exchange, not a gift, not a title and not an emolument.

OVERBY: These questions seem to be wide open. There aren't many legal precedents.

SAIKRISHNA PRAKASH: I definitely have the view that no one has standing to bring an Emoluments Clause challenge.

OVERBY: Sai Prakash teaches constitutional law at the University of Virginia Law School. He says emoluments are for Congress to consider. His view of the lawsuit...

PRAKASH: Well, I think it's become a vehicle for some people's frustrations with the president's continuing to, you know, have active businesses while serving as president.

OVERBY: Jennifer Taub is a law professor at Vermont Law School. Last winter, she helped organize a campaign calling on Trump to disclose his tax returns. She said that if this case fails, it would set a terrible precedent.

JENNIFER TAUB: We cannot have a representative democracy if the president takes office with the purpose of personal gain and, you know, essentially influence peddling.

OVERBY: More immediately, failure would be a bad omen for those other two emolument suits - one filed by Democrats in Congress, the other by the attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia. They're still working their way through the legal pipeline. Peter Overby, NPR News.


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