Business is tough when your competitor is the president of the United States. At least that’s what hotel and restaurant operators are claiming in an updated lawsuit filed in conjunction with a government watchdog group.
“It clearly creates a competitive disadvantage for the president’s competition, when someone can use the office of the presidency as a PR tool, sitting there talking about how great the chocolate cake is at his establishment” while addressing the national press about an act of war, restaurateur and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio told The Daily Beast.
In January, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a federal civil lawsuit against President Donald Trump, arguing that foreign dignitaries spending money at Trump’s hotel and restaurant holdings worldwide would violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars government officials from dispensing titles of nobility or from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
But CREW’s original filing had been on its own behalf, with the watchdog group making an untested case that it had standing because “it has suffered harm by having to divert resources from other work to monitor and respond to Mr. Trump’s activities.”
Their amended complaint now says that “competitors and employees of competitors of restaurants located in [Trump]’s hotels and other properties ... have been injured by these payments due to lost business, wages, and tips” and adds two new plaintiffs: an event booker at a D.C. hotel, and an advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, representing over 200 businesses including Colicchio’s.
“We’re extremely concerned that foreign ambassadors and dignitaries that frequent restaurants that our members work in seem compelled to use Trump Hotels in order to curry favor with the president in order to move foreign policy, instead of restaurants where they would usually eat,” Saru Jayaraman, a spokesperson for ROC United, which advocates for employers and workers at over 200 restaurants, told The Daily Beast. “For workers that’s a loss of tips, and for restaurant owners that’s a loss of business.”
The revised suit claims dignitaries are already revising their hotel and dining arrangements to buy favor with Trump, citing a November Washington Post article in which a Middle Eastern diplomat claims of Trump’s new Washington, D.C. hotel, “believe me, all the delegations will go there.”
The lawsuit also cites an “Asian diplomat” who told the Post, “why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’”
Colicchio said Trump’s continued stake in his businesses — now held in a none-too-blind trust being run by his family members — gives them an unfair edge.
“It’s a commercial. We’ve seen him on the campaign trail with his steaks and water and everything else,” Colicchio said. “There’s never an opportunity that the Trump advantage hasn’t taken advantage of branding. It’s good business, but it’s a little different when you’re president of the United States.”
Colicchio said he would take no issue with Trump’s self-branding if he weren’t president. (“That’s capitalism,” he said. “I’m a capitalist.”) But Trump’s new office makes his restaurant holdings a matter of Constitutional debate, he said.
Jill Phaneuf, an events booker for two Washington, D.C. hotels, said her qualms with Trump’s hotels were all business.
“This isn’t about politics, I’m a registered Republican and I believe nothing is more important that our Constitutional protections,” Phaneuf said in a statement. “I joined this lawsuit because the president is taking business away from me and others with unfair business practices that violate the Constitution.”
Phaneuf, who has previously written social media posts supporting Trump’s young presidency, says she joined the lawsuit because she believes Trump has used his office to cut into rival hotels’ business. Much of her income is commission-based, the lawsuit claims, and she specializes in booking functions for politicians and visiting dignitaries. But because Trump has “promoted his properties, including specifically Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C.” as a hub for the diplomatic community, “Ms. Phaneuf will be injured due to loss of commission-based income,” the lawsuit alleges.
The expanded lawsuit was filed Tuesday, days before the Department of Justice was expected to respond to CREW’s initial filing. DOJ lawyers plan on rebutting CREW’s claims that Trump illegally accepted payment from foreign governments by arguing that payments for hotel or restaurant books are not prohibited under the emoluments clause, the New York Times reports.
ROC and the restaurants they represent claim it’s just good business for Trump to distance himself from his businesses.
“Most presidents have divested themselves from their business interests. Jimmy Carter sold his peanut farm,” Colicchio said. “The least we can do is make sure the president isn’t beholden to any foreign countries and make sure he’s not enriching himself in the office.”