Restaurant owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross speak during a Thursday news conference about their lawsuit against President Trump.(Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The owners of a wine bar in the nation's capital announced a lawsuit Thursday against President Trump, arguing that his ownership of the Trump International Hotel is driving business to him and away from small restaurants like theirs.
The lawsuit from Cork Wine Bar owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross, announced with a phalanx of lawyers at the National Press Club, is the latest legal effort to force the New York developer to sever ties with his vast real-estate and branding empire. Trump has transferred management of his company to his adult sons and a longtime Trump Organization executive, but has not relinquished ownership, prompting an outcry from ethics watchdogs.
Foreign governments and lobbyists "who are looking to influence this administration are going to that business first," said Scott Rome, one of the lawyers representing Cork's owners. "Cork and all other DC restaurants are now second choice for anyone who wants to gain any favor with the government."
The Cork owners are not seeking money in their lawsuit but want a judge to "remedy the unfair competition," Rome said. One option: requiring Trump to divest his interest in the limited liability company that owns the hotel and its restaurants, he said.
Pitts and Gross, who are married, say their business has declined since Trump took office but said they could not provide a specific amount of revenue lost to Trump's businesses.
"We all know that Washington, D.C., is a company town centered around the business of government with the president being the principal focus of attention," said Pitts, a former candidate for Washington's city council. "We know that people — from foreign dignitaries to members of Congress to heads of state and international and national associations — have a choice where to dine, stay and hold events. Why wouldn't they go to a place that most pleases the president of the United States?"
In an email, Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten called the lawsuit "a publicity stunt completely lacking in merit."
White House officials declined comment.A series of ethical questions
Ethics questions have dogged the Trump administration from the start, ranging from Trump's decision not to divest his interests in his companies to concerns about whether it is proper for him, as president, to hold the lease on the Trump International Hotel in the federally owned Old Post Office Building in downtown Washington.
An earlier lawsuit from the liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington argues that Trump is violating a constitutional clause that bars gifts or payments from foreign governments. That case is pending.
Trump's lawyers have argued that clause doesn't apply to fair-market value payments for goods and services, such as paying for a hotel room, and have said he will donate any foreign profits from the hotel to the government.
Trump cannot be sued for actions related to his official duties as president, but he can be sued for personal actions or those related to his business conduct.
Pitts and Gross, an Independent and Democrat, respectively, have been active in liberal political causes. Pitts has worked as the Sierra Club's political director. On Thursday, the couple described their lawsuit as purely related to their business interests, not politics.
Rome, Cork's business lawyer, is one of several involved in the case. Others include Alan Morrison, dean of public interest law at George Washington University, and Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who specializes in free-speech claims and government accountability. Zaid's law firm also represents USA TODAY in Freedom of Information Act requests involving the Trump administration.
The lawyers said they were volunteering their legal services to Cork's owners.