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Federal Judge Seems Sympathetic To Anti-Corruption Case Against President Trump

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Police stand guard outside the Trump International Hotel, blocks from the White House last year. The hotel has become a center piece in lawsuits claiming the president is profiting from the office.

Barely a month ago, a federal judge in New York dismissed an anti-corruption lawsuit against President Trump.

But on Thursday, another federal judge, in a different courtroom, gave the same basic argument a much friendlier response.

Judge Peter Messitte, of federal district court in Greenbelt, Md., seemed sympathetic to the assertion that the Trump profits from the nexus of his hotels and the presidency.

During a preliminary hearing, the argument against Trump was made by two plaintiffs — the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia. They allege that Trump is violating the Constitution's emoluments clauses, which bar any president from personally profiting from his dealings with foreign governments — or even U.S. state governments.

"The fact is, Trump is taking money from foreign governments," Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh told reporters after the hearing. "He's taking money from the United States that's he's not entitled to, and he's also receiving payments from states — all that violate his oath of office."

One major point of contention involves the Trump International Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House. It opened weeks before the election, and quickly became a rendezvous point for the incoming president's allies and supporters. The plaintiffs say it's siphoning business from other venues in the Washington area, because big spenders see it as a place where they can influence presidential decision-making.

The Justice Department is defending the president. Justice Department lawyer Brett Shumate argued the lawsuit amounts to an "abstract political disagreement" with the president, and much speculation by the plaintiffs.

He said Maryland and the district infer competition between Trump's hotel and others in the Washington metro area and contended the plaintiffs haven't suffered any harm that justifies a lawsuit, essentially that they don't have standing to sue.

Judge Messitte seemed to urge the plaintiffs to amend the suit in ways that might make it more likely to succeed.

"It's your call, not mine," he told Loren AliKahn, deputy solicitor general for the District of Columbia.

Messitte said he would issue a ruling "as soon as I can." That probably means about two months.

Last month, Judge George Daniels in federal district court in Manhattan ruled in a similar case, brought by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, along with three plaintiffs from the hospitality industry in Manhattan and Washington.

Judge Daniels dismissed that case, saying it's up to Congress, not citizens, to act on the emoluments clauses.

"Congress is not a potted plant," he wrote in his opinion.

CREW has said there will be an appeal.

But Messitte's more sympathetic questions gave the plaintiffs in this case more optimism about their prospects.

"We came into this case confident about our standing, and we leave this courthouse even more confident," District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said after the hearing.

The stakes are high. If the district and Maryland win on the question of standing, they could seek access to financial records for Trump's Washington hotel, and for other properties as well.

What they ultimately want is a court order telling the president to divest himself of his financial empire. It would be the kind of court order no president has ever faced.

Shumate said divestiture wouldn't stop people from spending money at the Trump hotels. But the plaintiffs hope it would separate the president from the profits.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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