WASHINGTON ― The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the General Services Administration on Friday, arguing that President Donald Trump is in violation of his lease to operate the Trump International Hotel on government property.
Trump’s agreement with the GSA to run a luxury hotel within Washington’s Old Post Office building, which is owned by the federal government, specifically states that the lease cannot be held by an elected official. After Trump announced his plans to only marginally separate himself from his multibillion-dollar business empire on Jan. 11, the GSA issued a statement indicating that it hadn’t been unaware of those plans and declaring that it would not comment until Trump was sworn in as president.
Now that he is a sitting elected official, CREW contends that the GSA needs to immediately begin the process of informing Old Post Office LLC, the Trump company that holds the lease, that it’s in breach of that agreement. This could lead to termination of the lease and the Trump Organization’s removal from the Old Post Office building.
“The potential conflicts of interest with regard to President Trump’s company’s lease of the Old Post Office Building are serious and real,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in the letter to the GSA. “President Trump now both owns the lessee, Old Post Office LLC, and controls the lessor, GSA, whose administrator is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the president.”
Trump’s company was selected to open a hotel in the Old Post Office building through an open bidding process in 2013. The lease states very clearly, “No member or delegate to Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
When Trump announced his plan to remain a beneficiary of his business earlier this month, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said he was “very concerned.”
“We’ll see what happens, I guess, see next Monday after he’s sworn in. I expect that there will be a decision on [Jan. 20],” Cummings added.
The Washington hotel has been a hot spot for Trump supporters during inauguration week. The New York Times reported that it was bustling with activity as guests, including Trump’s Indonesian business partner Hary Tanoesoedibjo, were seen schmoozing in the lobby.
After Trump won the election, the hotel’s manager held meetings with foreign dignitaries to sell them on staying at the hotel as a way to ingratiate themselves with the new regime.
“Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor’?” one diplomat commented to The Washington Post.
Foreign governments paying for rooms in Trump’s hotel raised the possibility that the new president would find himself in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans government officials from receiving payments or gifts from foreign governments and foreign government-owned corporations. Ethics experts and constitutional lawyers argue that payments by foreign governments to the hotel would directly benefit Trump and violate the Constitution.
Trump’s tax lawyer addressed this issue on Jan. 11 by, first, disagreeing that payments to the hotel would violate the Constitution and, second, announcing that any profits the hotel receives from foreign governments would be directed to the U.S. Treasury. But that solution actually did little to solve the problem of the receipt of emoluments and raised the additional worry that Trump was directly entangling his profitable personal brand with the U.S. government.
The Trump hotel does not seem worried right now. Staffers gathered Friday on the hotel steps to wave to Trump along his inaugural parade route.
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