This week, we learned that the federal agency responsible for renting the historic federal property – the Old Post Office – of former President Donald Trump’s Washington hotel has approved a lease that may have been illegal for the duration of Trump’s term.
The bottom line is that every dollar that went to the company that ran the hotel enriched Trump.
The General Services Administration ruled in 2017 that the Trump International Hotel lease agreement was “fully compliant” with federal law despite a clause in the lease that expressly prohibits “any elected official” of the federal government from receiving any benefit from the rental property. In a letter to Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, the Public Security Agency said the terms of the lease had been adhered to because Trump had resigned from his positions at the Trump Organization and would not receive any “direct” profits from the hotel.
This does not make sense. Throughout his presidency, Trump held an ownership interest in the Trump Organization and its properties, including the Trump International Hotel. The fact that the hotel’s profits went to a company owned and controlled by Trump rather than Trump personally is irrelevant. Nor was it related to the fact that he had appointed someone else – his sons, of course – to run the company when he was president. Trump also said he had “blind confidence”. He simply couldn’t put Trump’s hotel and other property in “blind trust” and pretend he didn’t know he owned them.
The bottom line is that every dollar that went to the company that ran the hotel enriched Trump. Trump apparently got a benefit out of the federal government’s lease of the old post office. Public Security Agency lawyers who said this arrangement complied with the terms of the lease focused more on form than substance. And they know for sure who their boss is: a GSA official appointed by Trump himself.
There were also more serious constitutional and legal issues related to conflicts of interest with the lease, and these are the issues that the PSA just ignored. According to a Wednesday report from NBC News, the Public Security Agency “failed to examine the ethical disputes and constitutional issues raised by President Donald Trump’s refusal at the time to divest from property, according to a new congressional report.”
The article continued, “The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s report found that the General Services Administration did not track foreign government payments to the hotel or identify the assets of more than $75 million in loans that Trump and his family made ashore. Even the troubled finances.”
The Trump Organization has spent about $200 million converting the old post office into a luxury hotel. Apparently, the GSS did not know where the $75 million of that money came from.
The Trump Organization has spent about $200 million converting the old post office into a luxury hotel. Apparently, the GSS did not know where the $75 million of that money came from. What we do know – and what the Public Security Agency knew at the time – is that the Trump Organization has significant business dealings with Russia and many Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. We also learned at the time that foreign diplomats and citizens had frequented the Trump Hotel throughout the Trump presidency.
This is important because the emoluments clause of the Constitution expressly prohibits any employee of the federal government from receiving any compensation — any profit or benefit — from a foreign government without the approval of Congress. The founders did not want our government officials to be paid by foreign monarchs. The bonus reason prevents this – if it is implemented.
Shortly after Trump’s victory in 2016, Norman Eisen, who served as the chief ethics attorney in President Barack Obama’s White House, and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe, wrote a detailed report for the Brookings Institution explaining why Trump needed to give up most of his business. Empire, including the Trump Hotel, or will be in violation of the bonus clause.
Trump refused to divest. Instead, he participated in the charade that he was in compliance with the bonus clause, just as he was in compliance with the terms of the GSA lease, because his sons were running the hotel while he owned it. Complete nonsense.
We uploaded it on January 21, 2017, his first full day in office. The plaintiffs included “Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics” in Washington, as well as hotels and restaurants that compete with the Trump Organization. After more than two years of litigation, the United States’ Second Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the position of some of our plaintiffs, and has ordered the case to proceed to discovery and trial.
But Trump, in his usual way, delayed disclosing any information about the hotel’s finances or finances until his last day in office, after which the Supreme Court dismissed our call as moot.
For the entire four years—from the day we brought our case in January 2017 to the day it was dismissed as moot after Trump left office—we hoped that the federal courts would enforce the bonus clause because it was clear that the executive branch, whose top officials swear an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws and defense of the United States, and they will not do their job. Now, we’re learning more details about how, in particular, GSA, the owner of the Trump hotel lease, simply looked the other way.
Congress needs to make sure the bonus clause is enforced. The Protection of Our Democracy Act, passed by the House, will do just that. The Senate’s passage of the bill is critical. Without clear congressional authorization, executive branch agencies will be reticent to enforce the bonus clause against the president or other high-ranking officials.
As the founders feared when they drafted and ratified a constitution with this clause, this prohibition is vital to our national security—unless we don’t care if the president or other high-ranking officials receive salaries from foreign governments who might be our adversaries.