In response to an unfair competition lawsuit filed against President Trump by a D.C. restaurant claiming that it’s lost business to a Trump-operated building within walking distance to the White House, the President’s legal team says that not only are the claims without merit, but that Trump is immune from this sort of legal action.
The owners of the Cork Wine Bar in D.C. sued Trump in March, alleging that the President’s control of the famed Old Post Office building — which now includes a new Trump hotel — is unfairly siphoning away patrons who wish to dine where the leader of the free world and his staff eat.
The lawsuit also accused Trump of violating his lease on the Old Post Office, as that lease has an explicit prohibition barring any “elected official of the Government of the United States” from being party to the contract. The complaint was originally filed in a local D.C. court, but has since been removed to a federal court.
This morning, lawyers for the President filed two separate documents in support of their motion to dismiss. The first [PDF] details the arguments for the President’s claims of immunity.
In 1982, in the case of Nixon v. Fitzgerald, a divided Supreme Court narrowly held that the President is immune from civil lawsuits for acts committed while the President is in office. Fifteen years later, SCOTUS clarified in Clinton v. Jones that a sitting President could be sued in civil court, if the allegations involved actions from before the President took office.
Trump’s lawyers contend that the Cork Wine Bar lawsuit only involves allegations directly related to Mr. Trump as President Trump.
“Plaintiff is attempting to premise personal liability of President Trump on his occupancy of the Office of President of the United States. The Complaint disavows ‘any legal basis to complain about’ the President’s interests in the Hotel before his inauguration,” notes the memorandum. “Instead, it expressly alleges that the President’s holdings are unlawful precisely because he is the President and because of what he does in that capacity.” [Italics in original.]
Additionally, Trump’s lawyers argue that the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution prevents using District of Columbia unfair competition laws to bring an action against the President.
“If this lawsuit succeeds… the District will have done precisely what the Supremacy Clause forbids — and with respect to not just any federal official, but the President himself,” reads the court filing. “The Complaint is transparent about this objective when it specifically requests injunctive relief directing the President to either resign or face the choice of shuttering or selling the Hotel.”
In a separate document [PDF], lawyers for the President challenge the actual merits of the allegations brought by Cork.
For example, the claim that Trump is violating his lease on the Old Post Office building. Trump leased the property from the federal General Services Administration in 2013. That lease includes a provision barring elected federal or D.C. officials from being party to the agreement. A number of critics have alleged that the President is in violation of that lease by allowing Trump Old Post Office LLC to continue operating while he’s in office.
In today’s filing, the President’s lawyers say none of that matters, for the purposes of this lawsuit, because Cork Wine Bar is not a party to the lease and therefore should not be able to involve itself in what would be a breach of contract dispute between Trump and the GSA.
The Cork Wine Bar owners are not seeking damages through the lawsuit, but for Trump to either divest his interest in the Old Post Office (or resign from the Oval Office). His attorneys contend that the financial loss from walking away from this long-term lease would likely be larger than any damages the restaurant could have hoped to win.
In a statement to Bloomberg, a lawyer for Cork defends the lawsuit: “Presidential immunity is not intended to allow individuals to escape liability for personal acts associated with private businesses.”