By David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell, The Washington Post, April 17, 2017
Two new plaintiffs — an association of restaurants and restaurant workers, and a woman who books banquet halls for two D.C. hotels — plan to join a lawsuit alleging that President Trump has violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause because his hotels and restaurants do business with foreign governments.
The new plaintiffs will be added to the case on Tuesday morning, according to a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a D.C.-based watchdog group.
CREW had originally filed suit against Trump in federal court in January, alleging that — by continuing to own his business, which rents out hotel rooms and meeting spaces to other governments — Trump had violated the constitutional provision that bans “emoluments” from foreign powers.
Legal experts had said that the case faced a serious hurdle: It wasn’t clear that the watchdog group actually had standing to sue in the first place. What harm had it suffered, specifically, because of Trump’s actions?
The new plaintiffs are intended to offer an alternative answer to that question. Both say that, as direct competitors of Trump’s restaurants and hotels, they may lose foreign clients, who may book with Trump properties to curry favor with the president.
“It’s damage to our members, both employers’ bottom lines, and workers’ loss of income and tips,” said Saru Jayaraman, co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
That group — a nonprofit association that says its members include more than 25,000 restaurant workers, 200-plus restaurants and thousands of people who eat in restaurants — trains restaurant workers and advocates for higher wages.
The association was one of two plaintiffs added to the lawsuit Tuesday. Jayaraman could not cite a specific instance in which a member of the group had lost a client to a Trump business.
But she said the potential for such a development is clear.
“It’s not a free market, or a free country, when foreign governments feel like they have to eat and patronize Trump hotels and restaurants because he’s the president of the United States,” Jayaraman said. “I mean, that’s why the emoluments clause was written.”
The other new plaintiff is Jill Phaneuf, who works for a hospitality company, booking events for two Washington hotels: the Carlyle Hotel near Dupont Circle and the Glover Park Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue NW.
The two hotels themselves are not joining the lawsuit, the watchdog group said. Jordan Libowitz, a CREW spokesman, said that Phaneuf is a contractor who is paid on commissions that are tied to the gross receipts of the events she books. She joined the suit as an individual.
“I joined this lawsuit because the president is taking business away from me and others with unfair business practices that violate the Constitution,” Phaneuf said in a written statement. She declined to comment when asked if she could cite an example where a Trump hotel had taken her business away.
When The Washington Post asked the White House for comment, a spokeswoman directed the question to the Trump Organization. A Trump Organization spokeswoman said she could not comment before she had seen a copy of the new filing.
The aim of the lawsuit is the same as before. The plaintiffs ask U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams in New York to order Trump to stop violating the emoluments clause, and to release financial records to prove it.
The Constitution says that no person holding a federal office shall “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” It was inspired by fears that early American ambassadors might be corrupted by gifts from the countries where they were serving.
The plaintiffs in this case say that, by the same logic, Trump’s loyalties might be bent by foreign governments paying for the hotel rooms and office space he owns.
“This is ‘MOAC.’ The mother of all conflicts,” said Norm Eisen, a former ethics official in the Obama administration and a board member of CREW. “This is the one thing that we have in our power to do” to stop it, he said.
In the past, Trump’s attorneys have said that the term “emolument” should not apply to transactions where foreign governments pay market rates for hotel rooms or banquet halls.