Trump says suit claiming constitutional violations is 'without merit'

President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday that a lawsuit accusing him of violating the Constitution by allowing his hotels and other businesses to accept payments from foreign governments was "without merit."

His remarks to reporters in the Oval Office coincided with a letter by Democratic lawmakers asking the General Services Administration what it was doing about Trump's hotel lease for the Old Post Office building.

They said the lease states that no elected official of the federal government can share in the agreement or benefit from it.

An ethics watchdog group Monday pulled no punches in a lawsuit filed in federal court against President Trump, claiming that the president's refusal to divest his sprawling network of business holdings put him in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution.

"This cannot be allowed," the complaint said.

At the heart of the complaint is a clause in the Constitution written to prevent foreign governments from exerting influence on the United States. Known as the Emoluments Clause, the section bans the president from accepting gifts or compensation from foreign governments.

With dozens of foreign holdings, any of which could benefit from Trump's new role as president, the complaint argues, the president's "business interests are creating countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments, and have resulted and will further result in numerous violations" of the Constitution.

"As the Framers were aware, private financial interests can subtly sway even the most virtuous leaders," the complaint said.

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The complaint was filed by Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and joined by several legal experts on ethics, including Norman Eisen, who advised Barack Obama, and Richard Painter, who worked under George W. Bush.

It's not clear how well the plaintiffs will fare with their complaint. The first hurdle involves demonstrating that they have been harmed by alleged conflicts of interest created by Trump's business holdings.

The plaintiffs indicated that they may use the complaint to compel Trump to disclose his tax returns, a move he has repeatedly refused on the grounds that they are under audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

The suit refers to the issue only broadly, noting that the "defendant has continuously refused to release his tax returns."

Trump maintains that conflict of interest restrictions don't apply to U.S. presidents.

"As you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I'm president, which is — I didn't know about that until about three months ago, but it's a nice thing to have," Trump told reporters last week.

Trump is referring to Title 18, Section 208 of the U.S. Code, which governs the financial interests of government employees, and specifically exempts "the President, the Vice President, a Member of Congress, or a Federal judge."

But Monday's lawsuit argues that the constitutional ban on emoluments supersedes the ethics law Trump has cited.

"The Foreign Emoluments Clause was forged of the Framers' hard-won wisdom," the complaint said. "It is no relic of a bygone era, but rather an expression of insight into the nature of the human condition and the preconditions of self governance."

At a long-awaited news conference this month, Trump dismissed any potential conflicts after his attorney laid out the broad outlines of a plan to separate himself from the day-to-day operations of his businesses.

The plan includes the establishment of a trust to be run by two of his sons and a Trump Organization executive. The company will also hire an ethics advisor to clear any new domestic deals, and Trump pledged to donate any hotel profits generated from foreign governments to avoid the appearance of gifts.

But the plan doesn't go nearly far enough to head off major ethical conflicts, Walter Shaub Jr., director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said earlier this month.

The new structure, he said, is "meaningless."

"This is not a blind trust — it's not even close. ... His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns," Shaub said upon hearing the details of Trump's plan. "His own attorney said today that he can't 'un- know' that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings."

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, ProPublica reported that the documents required to transfer ownership of Trump's properties had not been filed.

Reuters contributed to this story.