DC Wine Bar Sues Trump for Unfair Competition

The complaint alleges that Trump’s hotel is in violation of its lease with the federal government.

A military parade in front of the Trump International Hotel during the presidential inauguration festivities.Jeff Malet/ZUMA

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


A Washington, DC, wine bar is suing President Donald Trump over his nearby hotel, which it claims has an “unfair” competitive advantage that violates the hotel’s lease with the federal government. The owners of Cork Wine Bar, located 1.5 miles north of the Trump International Hotel, announced at a press conference this morning that they have filed a lawsuit alleging that the power of Trump’s public office and simultaneous ownership of the restaurants at his Pennsylvania Avenue hotel are hurting other restaurants and bars in Washington for his personal benefit.

“We all know that Washington, DC, is a company town,” said Khalid Pitts, who owns the wine bar with his wife, Diane Gross. “It’s the center of business and the government, with the president being the principal focus of attention.”

Pitts noted that the many lobbying and interest groups in town, including foreign governments, are constantly vying for advantages with top US officials. “They have a choice on where to dine and where to hold events. Why wouldn’t they go to a place that most pleases the president of the United States or where he’s known to frequent?”

Pitts and Gross declined to put an exact dollar figure on their losses attributable to the Trump hotel, which opened in September but only since Trump’s inauguration has seemed to thrive. Both said they have noticed a decline, however, one that was significant after 10 years of restaurant ownership and couldn’t be traced to normal competition from other restaurants or seasonal changes. Since Trump’s election in November, multiple foreign diplomatic events have moved to the Trump hotel, and the lobby bar has become a regular hangout for lobbyists looking to connect with members of Trump’s inner circle, including chief of staff Reince Priebus. According to the Associated Press, several Trump Cabinet members are living at the hotel. During the inaugural festivities in January, the Trump hotel was ground zero for VIPs attending the ceremony, and Trump’s children mingled there with big donors and Trump’s foreign business partners.

Trump has dined at the hotel numerous times, and his aides have touted it as a destination for those visiting Washington.

The lawsuit is not related to a lawsuit filed in New York City in January alleging that Trump is violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal officials from recieving financial benefits from foreign governments. The new suit does not seek any monetary damages, just a court order mandating that the unfair competition be halted.

“That could be divestment, it could be the president resigns, or it could be the hotel or restaurant stops functioning,” said Mark Zaid, one of the attorneys for the couple and their restaurant.

A key aspect of the lawsuit is Trump’s continued ownership of the hotel, which occupies a government-owned building that Trump leases from the federal government. That lease appears to prohibit any elected federal office-holder from benefiting from the lease, a clause which Cork’s attorneys say was put into the contract to help avoid this very type of situation, where a government official could be giving the business a boost.

“Whether it was at a press conference, whether it was in a meeting with a member of the House of Representatives, the overall promotion of the business enterprises is steady, unrelenting, and unapologetic,” said Steven Schooner, a George Washington University law professor and another attorney for the couple.

Although Trump pledged to remove himself from the daily operation of his businesses, he is still the majority owner of the hotel—his adult children have a small stake in the operation—which means he is also named personally in the lawsuit. Presidents are shielded from lawsuits against actions they have taken in their official capacity but can be sued for activities undertaken as private citizens. For the case to proceed, Trump will have to be served with the lawsuit personally.

Alan Garten, an attorney for the Trump Organization, told CNN that the Cork lawsuit was “a wild publicity stunt completely lacking in legal merit.” Asked about the criticism, Zaid cracked that “everything he seems to do is a wild publicity stunt, so we’re in good company.”

Pitts, who has previously worked for the Service Employees International Union and more recently as the political director for the Sierra Club, acknowledged that there will be blowback and accusations that the lawsuit is politically motivated.

“When we walk out of here there’s going to be a bit of political theater…but that’s national DC,” Pitts said. “This is about local DC. This is about a local business and other local businesses that are trying to make it here in the city, and we feel the president of the United States owning restaurants, promoting restaurants, is unfair and to the detriment of other restaurants.”

Read the full complaint below:

 

 

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate