It’s safe to say that, at least as long as he continues to be President and run businesses on the side, Donald Trump’s legal team will never be out of work. This week, a small wine bar in Washington, DC sued the President of the United States and his controversial-but-fancy Trump International Hotel located a stone’s throw from the White House.
Cork Wine Bar, a bar and restaurant located near the hotel on 14th Street NW, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday citing “unfair competition,” Eater DC reports. The plaintiffs claim they have lost business from politicians and visiting officials who are being courted by the president, reducing those visitors’ ability to freely choose among all of D.C.’s independently-owned restaurants and meeting places.
Cork is owned by Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts, who also operate a market and tasting room across the street. The suit names both the hotel and Donald J. Trump himself as defendants. “We have events we do here for elected officials, nonprofits, foreign dignitaries, the World Bank, law firms,” Gross told the Washington Post. “Those folks are now being courted to come and want to go there because they see it as advantageous to them to curry favor with the president.”
Gross, Pitts, and their legal team — a group of D.C.-based attorneys and law professors working on a pro bono basis — have outlined a case in which Trump’s very public conflicts of interest are now affecting a small, independent, private business. The case states that the unfair business advantage is "specifically prohibited by the hotel lease between Trump Old Post Office, LLC (the business name for the hotel), and the United States, as well as the laws of the District of Columbia." The lease Trump and his team signed states in Section 37.19: "No member or delegate of Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom."
Cork cites “the perception by many of the customers and prospective customers of the Hotel... that it would be to their advantage in their dealings with President Donald J. Trump and other agencies of the United States Government if they patronized the Hotel.” Further: “Rather than take any significant steps to avoid exploiting public office for private gain, defendant Donald J. Trump, his family, and various White House staff and/or advisors have continued to promote the Hotel to maximize its exposure and income-producing potential." The suit goes on to list endorsements of the hotel by public officials, Trump family appearances at the hotel during televised events, and meetings held by Trump at the facility.
“The president is taking business away from legitimate businesses and that is not fair,” said George Washington University Law School professor Steven Schooner at a press conference.
Cork is not seeking monetary damages in their suit; instead, they are asking that the court “remedy” the situation in order to “ensure a level playing field for D.C. businesses.” This could mean Trump would be forced to give up ownership or affiliation with the hotel, sell the business, or close it and its restaurants, including BLT Prime and the forthcoming Nakazawa. According to a statement on the lawsuit’s website, “The lawsuit was filed by a team of District of Columbia attorneys and law professors for the express purposes of seeking judicial intervention to prevent unfair competition.”
Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump told the Washington Post he believed the suit wouldn’t see its day in court. “It’s people who have nothing better to do, so they harass and they harass and the [court] will throw it out…It’s ridiculous,” he said. In a statement to the New York Times, the Trump Organization called the lawsuit “a wild publicity stunt completely lacking in legal merit.”
“People have a lot of choices where they can eat,” Pitts said. “Our job as restaurateurs is to make sure people want to come in the door every day because we are all competing for those dollars.” Other D.C. restaurateurs may feel similarly to Gross and Pitts. If they are interested in joining the suit, Mark Zaid, co-counsel for the plaintiffs said during the press conference, “We would welcome any other restaurants on the same level of competition to join in as plaintiffs.”
This is the second noteworthy restaurant-related lawsuit to involve POTUS since he decided to run for the nation’s highest office. The first occurred last summer when, after then presidential candidate Trump made disparaging remarks agains persons of Mexican decent, award-winning D.C. chef and civil rights activist José Andrés and TV personality Geoffrey Zakarian pulled out of their lease agreements to open restaurants inside the new Trump hotel. Trump sued Andrés and Zakarian. They countersued. That case is pending.
Update 3/10/17; 9:44 a.m.: This post has been updated with statements about the lawsuit from Eric Trump and the Trump Organization.