The Washington Bar has come to dry in his David-versus-Goliath legal challenge to what it claims is unfair competition from President Donald Trump and his luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon on Monday dismissed the suit brought last year by Cork Wine Bar, alleging that Trump was using its official position to increase business for the Trump International Hotel, including from foreign officials and embassies eager to cozy up to the administration.
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However, Leon ruled that actions like using the White House to promote a family business are part of the rough-and-tumble of the free market and do not constitute a violation of the District of Columbia's common law prohibition on competition unfair, even if they ultimately hurt competing firms like Cork.
"Unfortunately for Cork, 'competition is not a fault …' Nor should it be," Leon wrote. "To hold actionable Cork's allegations in this case, I would be condemning an extensive swath of legitimate business conduct. … I would be foreclosing all manner of prominent people – from pop singers to celebrity chefs to professional athletes – from taking equity in the companies they promote. Indeed, I would be reading the 'unfair' right out of 'unfair' competition. This I can not do! "
Leon noted that Cork views the efforts by Trump and his hotel to capitalize on the "notoriety" of the president as "distasteful and unseemly, if not unethical." The judge emphasized, however, that the 14th Street bar and restaurant had not alleged that Trump or his agents took any direct action against the establishment, such as blocking its entry or trying to dissuade potential clients from holding events at Cork.
Leon said his ruling for Trump in the suit was compelled by a 1978 D.C. Circuit holding that tour guide company run by Ellen Proxmire, wife of Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), Was not engaged in unfair competition by offering insider access that other companies could not easily match. "This case is no different," the judge wrote.
Leon, the appointee of President George W. Bush, declined to wade into a related legal issue of whether by virtue of becoming president Trump was required to give up the lease that allows the hotel to operate in and around the property federal in the Old Post Office building Some have argued that a provision in the lease prohibited any federal officials from benefitting from the arrangement, but the General Services Administration concluded that it was not an impediment to the continued operation of the hotel by businesses controlled by Trump.
An attorney for Trump and his hotel, Eric Sitarchuk, declined to comment on Leon's ruling.
Brad Moss, an attorney for Cork, said his client was considering an appeal.
"We are disappointed that Judge Leon viewed a President profiting off his public office as a legitimate business conduct," said Moss, who has represented journalists, including POLITICO reporters, in press-access cases. "We are encouraged that the standing of Cork was never challenged, and that we are in a country that supports the rule of law and allows a local small business to challenge the president of the United States where necessary. We will continue to fight for those who are being hurt by the obvious corruption of the current administration. "
The suit, filed in March 2017, is just one of several Trump is facing claims that his businesses are illegally profiting from his presidency. Two of those cases – one brought by the governments of the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia, and another brought by almost 200 senators Democratic and House members – have found some traction in the courts, although no ruling has been issued on whether Trump's business arrangements violate the Constitution's ban on foreign emoluments.
Two others brought into New York City were dismissed and are currently appealed.