Donald Trump has argued that he is entitled to continue receiving income from foreign governments by noting that Barack Obama was allowed to sell copies of his books to overseas universities.
â€œMany foreign public universities have President Obamaâ€™s books in their library collection,â€ attorneys for Trump said in a court filing, citing the catalogs of state-run universities in Canada, China and Australia.
The comparison was drawn in an extraordinary motion filed in New York late on Friday by US justice department lawyers. They asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought against Trump by ethics campaigners, arguing that it would have â€œabsurd consequencesâ€ such as blocking some sales of books such as Obamaâ€™s.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew) alleged in the lawsuit that by retaining ownership of his business and property empire, Trump is violating a clause in the US constitution that bars US officials from receiving â€œemolumentsâ€ from other governments.
Trump has claimed that he will hand any profits from foreign officials to the US treasury. In their 70-page filing on Friday, the justice department attorneys argued that the presidentâ€™s arrangements were in keeping with precedents dating back to the countryâ€™s founding fathers.
â€œThomas Jefferson, while president, had received horses as presents from a foreign government, which he then sold, depositing the money into the Treasury,â€ the filing said.
The motion also cited exports to Britain of tobacco from Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s Monticello and flour from George Washingtonâ€™s Mount Vernon, along with the products of plantations owned by James Madison and James Monroe. But it did not specify whether these sales were to governments or private buyers.
Obama is the author of three bestselling books, from which he is estimated to have made about $15m.
Crewâ€™s lawsuit argues that Trump is breaching the emoluments clause by collecting revenues such as rent from the governments of Afghanistan, China, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for units in the presidentâ€™s Trump Tower and Trump World Tower properties in New York City.
After being elected, Trump rejected urgings from ethics experts to avoid conflicts of interests by selling his business holdings and placing his wealth into a blind trust. He passed day-to-day running of the Trump Organization to his two sons, a measure that was widely condemned as insufficient.
Payments to Trump hotels and restaurants from foreign officials, trademarks granted to Trump brands by China, and royalties from foreign state broadcasters also amount to breaches of the clause, according to Crew, whose lawsuit is joined by businesses who claim to be Trumpâ€™s competitors.
The lawsuit alleges that Trumpâ€™s arrangements present a â€œgrave threat to the United States and its citizensâ€, by â€œcreating countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments.â€
Through the justice department attorneys, Trump argued that the original constitutional ban against â€œemolumentsâ€ was intended to prevent direct rewards for actions taken in government by US officials, rather than payments for transactions involving outside business interests.
The constitutionâ€™s framers, they argued, specifically had in mind some gold and diamond-encrusted snuff boxes featuring images of Louis XVI that were given by France to American diplomats including Benjamin Franklin for successfully negotiating the Franco-American alliance treaty of 1778.
The justice department attorneys also argued that Crew and its allies did not have grounds to sue Trump because they had not shown that they had directly been harmed by the Trump business arrangements, and that a president may not be sued in his official capacity â€“ a contested notion.
Members of the House oversight committee are continuing to seek detailed information on Trumpâ€™s plan to pass profits from foreign officials to the US treasury.
Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committeeâ€™s senior Democrat, last month lambasted Trumpâ€™s company for responding to a request for documents by sending a glossy pamphlet that said the company was not prepared to make efforts to check whether customers worked for overseas states.