The Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C.’s historic Old Post Office opened last fall, only weeks before its namesake was elected President. With the White House and its primary occupant only a few blocks away, one D.C. restaurant claims the new hotel has an unfair advantage.
In a complaint [PDF] filed today in D.C. Cuperior Court, the owners of the Cork Wine Bar make the case that the restaurant is a direct competitor to the eatery inside Trump’s Old Post Office hotel, and that Trump owning the hotel while being President creates an illegally un-level playing field.
Cork Wine Bar defines itself in the suit as a “top 100” restaurant in the city and claims to be a “top 10 wine bar” in the Unites States, offering more than 50 varieties by the glass and 250 by the bottle.
“A significant portion of Cork’s business involves serving meals and alcoholic beverages, and hosting events, often for large groups of individuals and organizations, including many from outside the United States, who have business of one kind or another with — including seeking to influence the policies of — the United States Government and its elected officials,” the complaint says.
That much is true of a whole lot of the higher-end restaurants all through Washington, D.C. But Cork has the problem of being about a mile and a half down the road from the Old Post Office, which since 2013 has been leased to Donald Trump for redevelopment. In 2016, the Trump International Hotel opened on the property, and includes the BLT Prime steakhouse restaurant.
That’s a problem, say Cork’s owners, because anyone looking to book an influence-generating event knows perfectly well which venue the President of the United States — and by extension, those who work for him — is going to prefer or insist on, and it won’t be theirs.
“Because the Hotel and its restaurants and shops are new and because of its location, the Hotel and its restaurants immediately began to compete with Cork for business, just as any new hotel and restaurant in that location would compete,” the complaint continues. But the day after the 2016 election — Nov. 9 — “the competition between the Hotel and Cork began to favor the Hotel much more than before the election.”
Cork then outright says that the reason for this change “was the perception by many of the customers and prospective customers of the Hotel, substantially aided by the marketing efforts of officers and employees of the Hotel, as well as members of the family of defendant Donald J. Trump and others associated with him, 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.”
The Trump family and administration have continued to draw attention to the hotel, Cork continues, to the detriment of their own business. And competing with the actual, literal President of the United States is going to be a loser for the other party, most of the time.
Therefore, Cork concludes, since Jan. 20, 2017 — Inauguration Day — it “has been damaged by the unfair advantage that the Hotel has exploited because of its ownership by President Trump.”
To prove that’s legally unfair, Cork points to a section of the property lease that specifically reads, “No … 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.”
This section of the lease doesn’t just protect the interests of the U.S. government, Cork claims; it also protects the hotel’s competitors (i.e., them) from unfair competition.
Cork’s not asking for money, though; it says that because there’s no way to quantify or recover the damages, it has “no adequate remedy under the law.” But Cork is asking the Trump hotel group to “discontinue their unfair competition” in one of three ways: Closing the hotel for the duration of Trump’s presidency; completely selling off the hotel in a way approved by the court; or resigning from the presidency.
One of the lawyers filing the suit told reporters in a press conference that, “It’s clear that those who are looking to influence this administration are going to look to that business first.”
The restaurant owners also told press that they weren’t interested in a claim related to the Emoluments Clause or other challenges to the Presidency, but that rather this is simply business litigation. “We’re challenging the actions that he’s taken as a business owner, we’re not challenging his policies as president,” one of the co-owners told reporters.
In a statement to media, the head attorney for the Trump Organization has called the lawsuit, “a wild publicity stunt completely lacking in legal merit.”