RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit accusing President Donald Trump of illegally profiting off the presidency through his luxury Washington hotel, handing Trump a significant legal victory Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the ruling of a federal judge in Maryland who said the lawsuit could move forward.
The state of Maryland and the District of Columbia sued in 2017, claiming Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting profits through foreign and domestic officials who stay at the Trump International Hotel. The case is one of three that argue the president is violating the provision, which prohibits federal officials from accepting benefits from foreign or state governments without congressional approval.
In the case before the 4th Circuit, the court found the two jurisdictions lack standing to pursue their claims against the president, and granted a petition for a rare writ of mandamus, directing U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte to dismiss the lawsuit.
Trump heralded the decision in a tweet, saying, "Word just out that I won a big part of the Deep State and Democrat induced Witch Hunt." Trump tweeted that he doesn't make money but loses "a fortune" by serving as president.
Trump's personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, called the decision "a complete victory."
"We are pleased that the Fourth Circuit unanimously decided to dismiss this extraordinarily flawed case," Department of Justice spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in a statement.
During oral arguments before the panel in March, lawyers for Maryland and the District said Trump's status as president is a driving factor for foreign and domestic government officials to stay at his hotel.
Just blocks from the White House, the iconic Old Post Office quickly became a hot spot for lobbyists and foreign officials after it reopened in October 2016 as the Trump International Hotel. A public relations firm working for Saudi Arabia spent nearly $270,000 on food and rooms. The Philippine and Kuwaiti embassies have also had parties there.
Maryland and the District claim they have suffered harm because more people would stay at hotels in their jurisdictions if they weren't eager to curry favor with the president by staying at his hotel.
The court, however, wrote that Maryland and the District's "interest in enforcing the Emoluments Clauses is so attenuated and abstract that their prosecution of this case readily provokes the question of whether this action against the President is an appropriate use of the courts."
Trump's legal team had argued that Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine — both Democrats — lack authority to sue the president in his official capacity. Trump's lawyers also argued that the emoluments clause only bars compensation made in connection with services provided in his official capacity or in "an employment-type relationship" with a foreign or domestic government.
The 4th Circuit's decision to hear the unusual mid-case appeal put the lawsuit on hold before deadlines to respond to subpoenas issued in December seeking tax returns, receipts and other records from more than 30 entities, including 13 Trump businesses and the federal agency that oversees the lease for Trump's hotel.
Racine and Frosh said in a joint statement that they would not abandon their efforts.
"Although the court described a litany of ways in which this case is unique, it failed to acknowledge the most extraordinary circumstance of all: President Trump is brazenly profiting from the Office of the President in ways that no other President in history ever imagined and that the founders expressly sought — in the Constitution — to prohibit," the attorneys general said.
Racine has previously said that if the panel ruled against Maryland and the District, the legal team would seriously consider asking for a rehearing before the full 4th Circuit. He has also said it wouldn't surprise him if the case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
All three judges on the panel were nominated by Republican presidents: Paul Niemeyer, by George H.W. Bush; Dennis Shedd, by George W. Bush, and A. Marvin Quattlebaum, by Trump.
A similar case brought by nearly 200 congressional Democrats in the District of Columbia's federal court also deals with the idea that Trump is using the presidency for his personal profit, but that case is uniquely different in that the Congress is specifically mentioned in the emoluments clause itself. On Monday, the Justice Department petitioned for a writ of mandamus in the D.C. appeals court and asked for a stay on the 37 subpoenas issued in that case.
Associated Press writers Tami Abdollah in Washington and Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
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