As many have pointed out, one of the most glaring ethical and legal issues facing the newly inaugurated President Trump has to do with his beloved Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office Pavilion, in Washington, D.C. That’s because language in the lease between the Trump company that is leasing the hotel and the General Services Administration, the agency that manages government-owned properties, explicitly states that “No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom[.]”
The reasoning behind this clause, and why it’s particularly applicable to a case in which the “elected official” in question is the president, is simple. Since the property is owned by the federal government and managed by the GSA, for Trump to simultaneously be president and profit off the lease “is a casebook example of both the appearance of a significant conflict of interest and an intolerable intermingling of an elected official’s governmental duties and his family’s personal financial interests,” as two experts on legal issues pertaining to the GSA put it in a Government Executive article back in November. That is, Trump, given that the president chooses the head of the GSA, would get to both rent a building and be his landlord’s boss. The authors argued the GSA should immediately “breach, or do whatever it takes, to end, the contract.” (The watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility argued similarly in a complaint it filed today.)
That didn’t happen, of course. Between Trump’s election and today, the GSA had been mostly mum on this issue, insisting it didn’t have enough information about how Trump was going to handle his business to make any sort of determination about the hotel lease, and suggesting it didn’t want to before Trump took office and became an elected official, anyway. Yesterday, though, an agency spokeswoman indicated to Daily Intelligencer via email that the agency would be issuing a “statement” about the situation today, and confirmed I was on the list of recipients.
But nothing was ever sent out, and now a source at the GSA tells me that there is no statement forthcoming, instead pointing me to a January 11 blog post, which simply reiterates the point that the GSA was, at that time, seeking more information about Trump’s business plans before coming to any sort of conclusion.
In an email, one of the co-authors of the Government Executive piece, the George Washington University law professor Steven Schooner, a procurement expert who is a former Office of Management and Budget staffer, argued that the GSA has not handled this issue well:
If they were waiting for today to act, that was poor decision. At worst, that would be elevating high drama over strategic thinking or risk management. If they had plans to do something today (and, of course, I have no idea if they did or did not), and they were derailed, that’s their own fault, and they get no credit for thinking about it or trying.
It[’s] only going to get more difficult with time. GSA should have terminated the lease back in November, immediately after the election, or soon after, once it became clear that the Trump organization had no plans to work out a conflict mitigation strategy with GSA. Now, if and when GSA finally decides to act, it’s buying a lawsuit with the President, the President’s family, and the President’s family business. What a debacle.
Also, keep in mind that we saw at least three instances in the last 24 hours of how the hotel permits the President to exploit public office for personal, family, and business gain. There’s no way this ends well.
It will be very interesting to keep an eye on the interactions between Trump and the GSA going forward, but it’s hard to argue with Schooner’s conclusion that untangling this problem got much more complicated shortly after noon today.