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Explaining the lawsuit and lingering concern over Trump’s business dealings

A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges that President Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars government officials from receiving certain types of gifts from foreign powers or governments. William Brangham talks with Jonathan O'Connell of The Washington Post about the lawsuit, as well as whether the president has truly separated himself from his businesses.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    As we said earlier, there's been plenty of news in the past 24 hours about President Trump and his businesses. In fact, there are continuing questions about his pledge to separate from his businesses now that he's in the White House.

    William Brangham is here with more.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That federal lawsuit that was filed earlier today alleges that President Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

    That clause bars government officials from receiving certain types of gifts from foreign powers or governments. As we heard, the president called the suit totally without merit.

    In other developments, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said today the president had resigned from his businesses in full, as he'd promised to do.

    There have been questions as to whether that had indeed happened, but, late today, several news organizations said they had received signed letters and filings showing the process had indeed begun.

    Jonathan O'Connell is covering all this for The Washington Post, and he joins me now.

    Jonathan, let's start specifically with this lawsuit. What is the argument that these plaintiffs are arguing?

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL, The Washington Post:

    Sure.

    What they're taking aim at is the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, as you mentioned. It's an obscure clause that really no one had paid much attention to until recently.

    What it does is, it bars the president and other federal officials from receiving benefits of any kind from foreign leaders or foreign officials. And, unfortunately, there isn't a lot of case record in terms of courts really breaking that apart and explaining what that might mean, and the Supreme Court has never addressed it.

    So, there is a wide view of opinions on what an emolument might mean, what might qualify as an emolument, and also what might qualify as a violation of the Emoluments Clause.

    People are talking about some of the businesses that Mr. Trump has that receive payments from federal officials or foreign governments, or have — receive interest payments from maybe foreign banks. There are foreign buyers of his condominiums. There are foreign tenants or foreign-owned tenants of his buildings.

    And Mr. Trump is trying to take precautions to separate himself from his businesses as much as he can, but retain ownership of them.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Help me understand what the concern is here. Is it that, if I'm a foreign government and I am somehow putting money into a Trump-related organization, that that might somehow curry favor with the president?

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    Sure.

    Yes, the original idea was to avoid bribery from occurring and make sure that the president and other officials were focused on doing the best thing for the nation. And that core ideal is, I think, at the center of this initial lawsuit and the other lawsuits that could be to come, which is out of a concern that Mr. Trump will continue to have some allegiance to his businesses, because he does still own them and he would still benefit or profit from their doing well at the same time as he is president.

    And there — you know, he just has — he has such a wide array of businesses that he started, to think about all the various conflicts that he could have in the various parts of the federal government that he will oversee, it is going to take quite a bit of unwinding.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    China is one of the examples that is often cited when we talk about this clause. China rents space in Trump Tower.

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    Sure.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    A Chinese government bank, I know, loans money for a Trump-related project.

    What is it that the people who are bringing the suit want the Trump Organization to do?

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    I think there is a couple different motives for a suit like this.

    One is, if you can get far enough along down the line in a lawsuit, you can get to the discovery phase, as any attorney would know, and that's when you sort of get to learn much more about what the opposing party has at stake here. And then, you know, maybe they can unearth some of Mr. Trump's financials. Maybe they could even unearth his tax returns.

    Some of this might be a long shot, but there are probably a number of groups that are going to try to take a shot at this. And, as I mentioned, with all the businesses that he has, and you mentioned some of the Chinese interests, there's a number of opportunities and courts at which different parties could take a shot at him this way.

    And, for instance, he has many hotels in the United States, some of which he owns and some of which he has licensing agreements on, and if a foreign government wanted to say, you know, say they're going to do him a favor and rent out the entire hotel for a weekend and give his company thousands or tens of thousands of dollars that way, there is nothing preventing them from doing that now.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The president's lawyers and some other legal scholars have looked at this and said booking a hotel is really not the same as giving a sack full of cash to the president, because the money is going to a corporation, not to the president himself.

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    Sure.

    I mean, again, there's a number of interpretations here. One is, from a president's lawyer you saw, if somebody's paying market rate for a hotel room, that doesn't feel like a gift to a lot of people. And maybe it would not be considered a gift under the Constitution.

    On the other hand, if you look at an emolument as any kind of a benefit, any kind of a payment that the president receives from a foreign entity, then even if one is paying market rate for a hotel room, that's still a benefit to him and to his company.

    Now, Mr. Trump has also said that he will be donating any profits from foreign clients or foreign business to the United States treasury, but think about the difficulty of that if you own or operate a hotel company.

    The hotel staff would then have to distinguish between the payments that are from foreign entities or foreign guests and everybody else, and then divvy it up and send a check to the Treasury.

    And Mr. Trump and his attorneys have not explained any of the logistics of how that would work. Or — he has also mentioned that he has closed down a number of business deals in order to insulate himself from his businesses, but he hasn't disclosed what any of those deals are either.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The president, in part to disentangle some of these things, as you have said, has said that he's going to resign from his companies. There seems to be some evidence that he's making steps to do that.

    I know that a lot of ethics lawyers have looked at what he's proposed to do and say it's insufficient. What do they argue the president needs to do?

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    I mean, the ultimate ideal from the ethics experts and a thing that a number of presidents have done before Mr. Trump is to put their assets into a blind trust.

    And a blind trust, the terms gets thrown around quite a bit, but essentially it is an independently operated entity that would liquidate all of Mr. Trump's assets.

    Now, that's not an easy thing to do with real estate. It's not ideal to sell real estate when your hand is forced, because it's a cyclical business. And I think there's probably a reasonable way for Mr. Trump's company to retain ownership of his hotel and other properties.

    But if he doesn't do more than what he's doing in terms of taking himself and his ownership out of these companies, these questions are going to continue coming up, I would imagine, for his entire presidency. He owns so many businesses. They're so prominent, in terms of golf and hotel and products, that I can't imagine this will away if he continues to own them all.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right, Jonathan O'Connell of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • JONATHAN O’CONNELL:

    Thank you.

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