On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ruled that a lawsuit alleging that President Trump has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution can proceed. But what are emoluments, and what does the judge's decision have to do with the president?
What are emoluments?
An emolument is a payment from a job, service or office. The word comes from the Latin emolumentum, meaning "a payment to a miller for grinding grain."
What's the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution?
The Emoluments Clause specifies that the president cannot receive payments from foreign governments while he or she is in office.
It's technically called the Title of Nobility Clause, which is Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution. That reads, "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." It was added to the Constitution out of fear that lawmakers would be corrupted by gifts from foreign officials.
What do emoluments have to do with Trump?
The lawsuit approved on Wednesday alleges that Trump has profited from foreign governments whose officials have paid to stay at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) — which includes ethics lawyers who served in the Bush and Obama administrations — filed a suit in January, saying the Emoluments Clause prevents the president from accepting those payments and asked a court to order they be stopped. “A federal officeholder who receives something of value from a foreign power can be imperceptibly induced to compromise what the Constitution insists be his or her exclusive loyalty: the best interest of the United States of America,” the group wrote in the filing.
Trump called the case "totally without merit." Before Trump's inauguration, his attorney said that "paying for a hotel room is not a gift or present" and said that profits would be turned over to the U.S. Treasury, although no framework for that was provided.
The CREW suit was tossed for lack of standing (or harm — the ethics group didn't show they were being hurt by the president's actions). Then attorneys general from Maryland and D.C. filed suit on behalf of other area hotel owners, who contend Trump International has an unfair business advantage and receives special tax concessions. Judge Peter Messitte of the U.S. District Court of Maryland said that suit can proceed.
In his ruling, the judge said repeatedly that foreign governments have moved their business from the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons 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 wrote.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she wouldn't comment on ongoing litigation.