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Inspector General: GSA ignored the Constitution when it let Trump keep lease at D.C. hotel

Officials barely considered whether Trump winning the presidency constituted a violation of the lease, an inspector general report revealed.

GSA ignored the Constitution when it let Trump keep his lease at his D.C. hotel, an inspector general report revealed this week. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
GSA ignored the Constitution when it let Trump keep his lease at his D.C. hotel, an inspector general report revealed this week. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Officials at the General Services Administration (GSA) ignored the Constitution in allowing President Donald Trump to keep the lease at his namesake Washington, D.C. hotel, an inspector general report revealed this week.

According to the report, GSA, which oversaw the redevelopment of the Old Post Office building where the Trump International Hotel is currently housed, and was responsible for screening all development proposals, overlooked critical provisions in the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause in allowing Trump to maintain the lease following his election in 2016.

“We found that GSA recognized that the President’s business interest in the OPO lease raised issues under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses that might cause a breach of the lease,” the report read. “[H]owever, GSA decided not to address those issues in connection with the management of the lease. […] In addition, we found that GSA’s unwillingness to address the constitutional issues affected its analysis of Section 37.19 of the lease that led to GSA’s conclusion that [Trump’s] business structure satisfied the terms and conditions of the lease.”

The report noted officials were initially unconvinced that awarding Trump the lease in 2012 would pose problems down the road, as they “thought a Trump presidency unlikely,” despite his earlier campaign ruminations. Even after Trump’s election, however, GSA lawyers were in agreement Trump’s ownership of the hotel might violate the Emoluments Clause, but chose to ignore the problem because the agency typically “[did] not deal with constitutional issues (other than issues involving land
condemnation or GSA officials).”

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GSA lawyers briefly considered a provision in the lease, Section 37.19, which prohibits elected officials from “participating in contracts or agreements with the United States.” Section 37.19 has been used in other GSA contracts to ban members of Congress, for example, from beneficial ownership interests.

Howeverm Trump’s lawyers claimed he wasn’t in violation of 37.19 because he had been “‘admitted to’ [the] lease before [the] election.”

Officials eventually met with Trump and his son, Eric, executive vice president of development and acquisitions at the Trump Organization, which owns the hotel, on January 31, 2017, to convince the president to divest himself from the property. The meeting was unsuccessful.

Despite all these things, GSA eventually decided to issue a Tenant Estoppel Certificate. Ignoring the larger emoluments issues, it certified that Trump’s business was in full compliance with the lease and was not in violation of Section 37.19.

“GSA’s decision-making process related to Tenant’s possible breach of the lease included serious shortcomings,” the report read. “GSA had an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution. However, GSA opted not to seek any guidance from OLC and did not address the constitutional issues related to the management of the lease. As a result, GSA foreclosed an opportunity for an early resolution to these issues, including a possible solution satisfactory to all parties.”

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As a result of those failures, the report concluded, “constitutional issues surrounding the President’s business interests in the lease remain unresolved.”

The Trump International Hotel has long been cited as a problematic conflict of interest for the president, as he maintains a majority — but non-controlling — stake in the property as well as financial interests that benefit him personally. Critics say the hotel violates the Emoluments Clause because foreign governments and other figures have allegedly used it to curry favor with Trump, funneling money to his businesses in exchange for coveted political leverage.

Specifically, Trump’s opponents have pointed to the fact that several foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Bahrain, Malaysia, and Kuwait, have all chosen to host large events or celebrations at the D.C. hotel, the last of which moved its “National Day” event to the venue after members of the Trump Organization allegedly “pressured the ambassador to hold the event at the hotel owned by the president-elect,” a source told ThinkProgress in December 2016.

In April last year, a Trump Organization spokesperson downplayed concerns over those business transactions, telling ThinkProgress the company had followed through on an earlier promise by the president to donate any foreign profits from his hotels to the U.S. Treasury.

Foreign governments, however, are not the only ones using the president’s D.C. hotel to curry favor with the administration. According to an April 2018 report by the government watchdog group Public Citizen, political groups and federal agencies spent at least $15.1 million at Trump properties in the first 15 months of Trump’s presidency.

As ThinkProgress previously noted, the Trump campaign itself spent the most money at Trump properties during that time, dropping approximately $13.4 million alone.