Judge allows lawsuit alleging Trump took illegal foreign gifts

The Trump International Hotel on September 5, 2017 in Washington DC. Credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

(CNN) — A federal judge said Wednesday that a lawsuit alleging gifts or payments from foreign and domestic governments made to President Donald Trump may be illegal can proceed.

But the ruling from Judge Peter Messitte of the US District Court of Maryland says the Maryland and District of Columbia attorneys general who brought the case will have to focus it on the Trump Organization’s operations in Washington. That means the case going forward will challenge payments made by foreign officials for services at the Trump International Hotel, but will not include visits to Mar-a-Lago in Florida or other Trump properties.

Maryland and DC have argued that the Trump International Hotel’s operations put other nearby hotel and entertainment properties at a competitive disadvantage, and that the Trump hotel got special tax concessions.

Messitte did not make any rulings on the allegations in the case, which accuse Trump of taking illegal gifts from foreign governments through his family’s business, violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.

Still, the judge hints at his feelings toward the Trump International Hotel. He notes multiple times, for instance, that foreign governments have moved business from the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels in Washington to the “President’s Hotel.”

“[A] large number of Maryland and District of Columbia residents are being affected and will continue to be affected when foreign and state governments choose to stay, host events, or dine at the Hotel rather than at comparable Maryland or District of Columbia establishments, in whole or in substantial part simply because of the President’s association with it,” Messitte writes.

Messitte also notes that one of Trump’s argument in the case, that only Congress can approve or bar the president from receiving emoluments, is “particularly concerning,” because Congress can be controlled by the same party as the president and choose to do nothing.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said during her daily briefing that she “can’t comment on ongoing litigation.”

A spokesperson for the Trump Organization reacted to Wednesday’s order saying that the court has yet to rule on additional arguments, “which we believe should result in a complete dismissal.”

In December, a federal judge in New York ruled that plaintiffs in two other emoluments suits lacked standing, so dismissed the case.