Controversy over President Trump's refusal to release his tax returns may have fallen off the political radar, but it resurfaced in a very real way in a Manhattan courtroom on Wednesday. As NPR reports, that's where a hearing unfolded as part of a lawsuit brought by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The group argues that Trump is violating the obscure Foreign and Domestic Emoluments clauses of the Constitution, and if things go its way (by no means a certainty), that could lead to Trump's returns being made public. The details:
- Main argument: The clauses essentially forbid officeholders from accepting gifts (or "emoluments") from foreign governments. CREW argues that Trump, because he didn't fully divest, is doing exactly that when foreign dignitaries stay at his hotels or otherwise engage with the Trump business empire. "Here's the sticky bit," observes Dahlia Lithwick at Slate. "We don't have a lot of doctrine in this area because it's never been litigated."
- Definition of 'emolument': Justice Department attorney Brett Shumate, representing Trump, said an "emolument" suggests a quid pro quo, meaning it only counts as one if Trump provides a political favor in return for receiving something. Judge George Daniels pushed back. “Why doesn't emolument mean compensation?” he asked, per the Wall Street Journal. "Why do we need a more complicated definition?”
- Hot dogs: The judge posed a hypothetical: Let's say a foreign government wanted Trump to sign a treaty, and it bought $1 million worth of hot dogs from a Trump-owned hot dog vendor to sweeten the pot. Shumate said that might be an emolument, but only if Trump signs the treaty. Daniels, however, said the founding fathers had an "all-inclusive" view of emoluments, with no quid pro quo necessary, per the Journal.
- Big picture: The apparent loss on the emoluments definition may seem to bode poorly for Trump, but CREW still faces an "uphill battle" in the overall case, notes a post at New York. For one thing, Daniels seemed skeptical of its legal standing to sue in the first place, because the group would need to show it has been harmed by business at Trump's hotel and restaurants. (The group has been joined by reps from those industries in the case.)
- Trump's returns: If, however, the judge finds that the case has enough merits to proceed, CREW could go after Trump's financial documents, including his tax returns, notes NPR. Daniels will rule on Trump's motion to dismiss within 60 days. The judge openly speculated whether the matter would be better left for Congress to hash out.
A similar lawsuit
is in the works. (Read more President Trump