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Neighborhood Dispute: The D.C.-Maryland Lawsuit and Donald Trump

White House brushes aside suit, but conflict with home region is real

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, right, and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh conduct a news conference on a lawsuit they filed Monday against President Donald Trump, alleging he violated the U.S. Constitution by accepting foreign payments through his businesses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, right, and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh conduct a news conference on a lawsuit they filed Monday against President Donald Trump, alleging he violated the U.S. Constitution by accepting foreign payments through his businesses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine can see the top of the Trump International Hotel from his Penn Quarter office. Whenever he looks at it, he sees the U.S. Constitution being trampled by President Donald Trump.

Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced Monday they have filed a lawsuit against Trump claiming his business ties violate the U.S. Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause.” By doing so, they fired the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between the Trump White House and the city and region it calls home.

The White House was eager to fire right back at the Democratic AGs, vowing to see that the suit is thrown out of court.

“The president’s interests … do not violate the Emoluments Clause,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, referring to part of the Constitution designed to ensure presidents and other government officials are not swayed by gifts, including from foreign governments.

“It’s not hard to conclude that partisan politics may be one of the motivations behind the suit,” Spicer said, pointing to the party affiliation of both attorneys general and the “partisan ties” of watchdog groups and lawyers involved in the suit. “We’ll continue to move to dismiss this case in the normal course of business.”

The Republican National Committee reacted quickly, accusing the Mid-Atlantic attorneys general of doing little more than playing politics.

“This lawsuit brought against our president is absurd,” said Lindsay Jancek, an RNC spokeswoman. “From day one, President Trump has been committed to complete transparency and compliance with the law.

[Legislative Agenda Gets Tougher for Trump]

“The actions of the attorneys general represent the kind of partisan grandstanding voters across the country have come to despise,” Janeck said. “The American people elected President Trump to lead this country, and it is time Democrats end their efforts to delegitimize his presidency.”

But the AGs painted a much different picture during a press conference in a packed basement courtroom just a few blocks from Trump’s Pennsylvania Avenue hotel.

“As I look out the window and see the tower of the Trump International Hotel, we know exactly what’s going on every single day,” Racine told reporters.

“We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favor with the president of the United States,” Racine said. “Just one example: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose government has important business and policy before the president of the United States, has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars” at the hotel.

“We are a nation of laws. And no one, including the president of the United States is above the law,” the D.C. attorney general said. “No one, not even the president, can be allowed to endanger our democracy and erode our faith in our institutions.”

Racine and Frosh criticized Congress for failing to provide a sufficient check on some of Trump’s early moves since taking office. The “Republican-controlled Congress has wholly failed to fulfill its responsibility to serve as a check and balance,” Racine said, adding GOP lawmakers have given the president a “total pass on his business entanglements.”

That’s a major reason, the duo said, they “jointly” decided to file the suit.

“Elected leaders must serve the people, and not their personal financial interests. That is the indispensable foundation of a democracy,” Frosh said. “We cannot treat a president’s ongoing violations of the Constitution and disregard for the rights of the American people as the new and acceptable status quo.

“The president, above all other elected officials must have only the interests of Americans at the heart of every decision.”

The room in which they spoke was full of journalists on Monday, which is standard practice for events focused on the chief executive. But lawsuits by state attorneys general against presidents of the opposite political party are nothing new.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is a prime example. He previously was oil-rich Oklahoma’s AG, and he used the position to go after President Barack Obama environmental policies. Most notably, he targeted the Obama administration’s high-profile Clean Power Plan.

By filing the suit, Racine and Frosh further escalated a battle between the White House and the metropolitan area that buzzes around the executive compound’s 18 acres.

[Appeals Court Upholds Block on Trump’s Travel Ban]

The District and Maryland decided to sue Trump over the Emoluments Clause, in part, “to protect our residents,” Racine said. Frosh told reporters he is confident Marylanders have been harmed financially by Trump’s various business holdings in the Washington region.

But, like on other issues, the AGs were arguing a larger point on Monday: “The president’s conflicts of interest threaten our democracy,” Frosh said.

The president’s executive order banning federal funds from flowing to so-called sanctuary cities that opt against complying with federal officials’ orders on enforcing immigration laws is another.

In late January, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, also a Democrat, announced she would be “doubling down” on the District’s “sanctuary city” status. And that came after local law enforcement was ordered to not cooperate with federal entities who want to deport immigrants.

“We must ensure that all District residents can take advantage of their federal and constitutional rights,” Bowser said in January. “If immigration enforcement changes and problems arise, D.C.’s immigrant population will have our support and the support of D.C.’s legal community.”

Bowser and the D.C. city government have also gone on record as saying they will comply with the Paris climate accord, which Trump said he would pull the United States out of.

The clashes show how the 45th president is living in tension with Washington and much of the Mid-Atlantic region. That’s largely because Frosh and other area officials, as the Maryland AG put it Monday, see a Republican president who “doesn’t seem to understand or care” about the law.

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