Five Washington, D.C., religious leaders and two retired or inactive D.C.-based judges have launched an effort designed to force President Trump to fully disengage from the Trump family business while serving in office.
And unlike other challenges, this one has a very narrow, precise, and attainable target: The Trump International Hotel D.C.’s liquor license, which Trump continues to hold personally, despite having purportedly stepped back from Trump Organization business dealings.
According to Joan Goldfrank, a retired magistrate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., an inactive senior U.S. District Court judge for the District of Columbia; Rev. William Lamar IV, the senior pastor at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.; Rev. Jennifer Butler, the founding executive director of Faith in Public Life and the former chair of the White House Council on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships; Rev. Dr. Timothy Tee Boddie, a Baptist preacher; Rabbi Jack Moline, a Conservative Jewish rabbi; and Rabbi Aaron Potek, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, all residents of D.C., the Trump hotel’s liquor license should be revoked.
That is because Trump remains the owner of the licensee—the Trump International—and D.C. law requires an owner to be "of good character.” The complainants argue that Trump having been accused of sexual assault by at least 16 women, his foundation continuing to be dogged by allegations of impropriety, his failure to pay contractors money owed, his maintenance of relationships with alleged criminals, and his attitudes toward minority groups and regarding race relations collectively mean he falls short of the legal “good character” standard.
If you think this sounds crazy, get this: The District of Columbia Alcohol Beverage Control Board just might wind up agreeing.
Former board member Mafara Hobson is siding with the complainants and urging “an immediate investigation and subsequent hearing to determine if the hotel is in compliance and worthy of the privilege to hold a liquor license in the nation’s capital.” That requested investigation is currently ongoing, meaning this isn’t just a random request filed and sitting in an inbox somewhere, gathering dust. Trump’s license could indeed be pulled, something that would no doubt irk him greatly, and cause major financial issues for the hotel.
Observers of the ongoing war between the president and his detractors might regard the complaint as the ultimate in clever trolling designed to mess with the president’s head—and the latter part of that statement may be true. Trump is famously boastful of his wealth and business success, despite four bankruptcies; alcohol sales form a solid financial foundation for hotels and restaurants. It’s easy to imagine that the loss of the liquor license could seriously damage the financial health of the Trump International, despite the hotel’s popularity with lobbyists, insiders and foreign governments trying to curry favor with the Trump administration. In turn, the hotel performing badly could further undermine perceptions of Trump as a successful businessman, which were to some degree already knocked back during the 2016 primary.
Joshua A. Levy, counsel to the complainants, says Trump need not jeopardize the financial well-being of the property, however, by allowing the complaint and investigation to proceed further. “Mr. Trump put his character at issue when he certified that he is the owner of the licensee,” says Levy. “If he doesn’t want to adjudicate his own character, he can transfer his ownership to someone who, as opposed to Mr. Trump, can meet the statutory requirements. Otherwise, he should have to show cause why his hotel should keep the license. Being president does not excuse Mr. Trump from compliance with the law.” In other words, to avoid the entire problem, Trump could simply make someone else—perhaps a less ethically encumbered family member or business associate—owner.
But if Trump is to retain his license, not only will he need to show evidence of “good character”—something Trump critics might wryly suggest he could do by leveraging his evangelical backers to try to make his case. Mr. Levy says the board itself will need to show cause why the Trump International’s liquor license should not be revoked, having regard to the “good character” requirement pertaining to the licensee’s owner. Otherwise put, the board will have to go to bat for Trump. That may be a tough sell in D.C., where Trump is wildly unpopular, having managed to win a mere 4 percent of the vote in 2016. Adding to the potential complexity facing Trump is the fact that members of the board are appointed by D.C.’s mayor and confirmed by D.C.’s council—all of whom can be lobbied. But lobbying the board itself is, according to a backer of the effort, not typically done.
Will the scheme work? Despite the fact that Trump is hardly a beloved figure in D.C., and it’s an arm of the D.C. local government that needs to make the decision, the board could of course decide to let him keep his license; that would signal business-friendliness that some have seen as waning in the district lately with voters having passed an initiative to raise the hourly wage of tipped workers.
But if the complaint does result in Trump’s license being yanked, the complainants expect to see it replicated elsewhere—and Trump should probably prepare for that. In the initial application filed to obtain the liquor license, Trump said he owned, controlled or “was associated” with 19 further businesses that held liquor licenses nationwide, including a bevy associated with his golf courses. Some of those are said to be in locations where standards meet or exceed those of D.C.’s “good character” requirement, potentially putting them at risk for the same sort of license-jeopardizing complaints.
While the D.C. complainants are not pursuing action with respect to these other liquor licenses, they believe their complaint may be replicated elsewhere, by other local community and judicial leaders who take issue with Trump’s apparent continued involvement in his family business, his character and ethics.
Of course, that is assuming the complaint actually succeeds in costing Trump his liquor license in D.C., or that he does not take note of the complaint and preemptively transfer the license to someone of more obviously “good character” in order to avoid the hassle.
The latter of those end results would of course be a good outcome in the view of the complainants. Per Mr. Levy, “The rule of law still matters. Character still matters.” #nevertrumpers and the #resistance may argue that’s a quaint notion that fell by the wayside with Trump’s inauguration as president. However, the D.C. liquor board might end up proving them wrong—at least in this single, very narrow, specific legal area.