U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled in a 12-page opinion that Cork Wine Bar had “failed to state a claim for unfair competition.”
In the suit filed in March 2017, the bar owners had alleged that they were losing business to Trump’s luxury hotel because foreign leaders, lobbyists and government officials were more likely to book there.
“If they have a party to book, they’re going to book it there first, whether to gain influence with the president, to gain influence with the administration,” the restaurant’s attorney Scott Rome said to the Washingtonian. “And he shows up there on weekends, so you get personal face time by going there.”
But Leon wrote public figures, including Trump, can’t be barred from taking equity in the companies they promote.
“To hold actionable Cork’s allegations in this case, I would be condemning a wide swath of legitimate business conduct,” he wrote. “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 cannot do!”
He noted the Trump property had not directly harmed the establishment, such as blocking its entrance or trying to dissuade potential clients from holding events at Cork.
Leon described efforts by Trump and his hotel to capitalize on the president’s “notoriety” as “distasteful and unseemly, if not unethical.”
The judge, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, noted “there are constitutional questions of profound weight and import lurking within this case” but added that “the pending motions can be resolved without opening that Pandora’s box of novel issues.”
Owners Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts opened a restaurant amid pawnshops and vacant storefronts in 2008, and added the Cork Market & Tasting Room. Other restaurants then opened nearby.
And Trump’s hotel, which at one time was a post office, opened in October 2016 1 1/2 miles away. The property is leased from the federal government.
“The president’s name, well-known ownership and presence give the Trump International hotel a big leg up in winning the competition of attracting diners and tourists, and hosting lucrative events where many people gather to drink and dine or even more political dinners,” Gross and Pitts wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.
In addition, they claimed the hotel was violating its lease that any elected officials are prevented from having an ownership stake “in the hotel where he or she receives benefits while in elective office.”
Brad Moss, a lawyer for Cork, told Politico his client was considering an appeal.
Separate suits allege Trump has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bans a sitting president from taking gifts or payments from foreign or domestic governments.
One suit was brought by the governments of the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia, and another by nearly 200 Democratic members of the House and Senate.