Trump claims absolute immunity from D.C. wine bar's lawsuit

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[May 11, 2017]    By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - Lawyers for Donald Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. president has "absolute immunity" from a lawsuit by owners of the Cork Wine Bar in Washington, D.C., who claim that his ownership of a nearby hotel constitutes unfair competition.

The Cork Wine Bar restaurant is seen in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Trump's lawyers, in seeking a dismissal of the lawsuit by Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts, said the president cannot be forced to close or divest the Trump International Hotel, located in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, or else resign his office.

The doctrine of absolute immunity "ensures that the President can focus on carrying out the obligations of his Office without the distraction of virtually limitless litigation whose costs he would personally bear," Trump's lawyers said in a court filing. "That doctrine forecloses this lawsuit."

Mark Zaid, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, disagreed.

"This lawsuit is against Donald J. Trump, not President Trump, and the cloak of immunity does not attach to his private, personal financial dealings," Zaid said in an email.

The lawsuit is one of many targeting Trump's alleged failure to distance himself from his business empire while in office.

Trump has ceded day-to-day control over his businesses to his sons Eric and Donald Jr.

Gross and Pitts, who are married, said their wine bar has lost business because the Trump hotel and its restaurants have an unfair advantage. They said the advantage stems from the hotel's association with the president and an expectation it will attract diplomats, lobbyists and politicians hoping to curry favor with him.

In a separate request to dismiss the lawsuit, the hotel's operator defended its use of Trump's name.

"Financial success does not become unlawful simply because it is aided by prominence," the hotel operator said.

The Trump International Hotel opened in September, before Trump was elected. It is located roughly 0.7 mile southeast of the White House and 1.5 miles south of the wine bar, which is near Logan Circle.

Cork said it has hosted events for White House officials, Congressional lawmakers, the World Bank, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Sierra Club, among others. Open since 2008, it offers more than 50 wines by the glass, typically for $8 to $15, and in March was named one of the best U.S. wine bars by Food & Wine magazine.

Last month, the Trump Organization settled separate lawsuits with celebrity chefs Jose Andres and Geoffrey Zakarian, who had backed out of agreements to open restaurants in the Trump hotel.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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