In a court hearing in New York on Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers were expected to argue that the ban on foreign money is meant only to address gifts or emoluments to the president in his official capacity. They have said Trump's business arrangements are a political question, not a legal one, and should be addressed by Congress, not the courts.
The case brings the prospect of penetrating some of the obscurity surrounding Trump's complicated financial empire — including a web of hundreds of corporate entities around the world — and resolving questions about the international sources of Trump's money.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning public policy group, filed the lawsuit in January in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The judge, George B. Daniels, was not expected to rule immediately on the question after Wednesday's hearing.
"We need to know if our president is financially dependent on any foreign governments," said Richard Painter, who is vice-chair of CREW and formerly the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency looked forward to Wednesday's hearing. One significant aspect of the case, if the judge allows it to proceed, could involve the production of Trump's closely-held tax returns, which may show foreign business income and financial relationships.
The case centers on the "Emoluments Clause," which states that no U.S. official can without Congress' consent "accept any present, emolument, office, or title of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."
Part of Wednesday's arguments will focus on whether the plaintiffs have legal "standing," or sufficient connection or harm, to sue the president. Those plaintiffs include the organization Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a restaurant owner in New York City and an event booker for two Washington hotels. Justice Department lawyers representing Trump have said the case should be dismissed on those grounds.
Two other emoluments-related lawsuits have also been filed against Trump by members of Congress and the attorney generals for Maryland and the District of Columbia. Trump could choose to have Congress review any presents or emoluments he receives, but given the ongoing Russia probe it is unlikely that even members of a Republican-controlled Congress would sign off without a review of the president's tax returns.
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