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Agency ignored constitutional concerns about Trump hotel lease, watchdog report finds

Agency ignored constitutional concerns about Trump hotel lease, watchdog report finds
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Beth J. Harpaz / Associated Press)

The General Services Administration “ignored” concerns that President Trump’s lease on a government-owned building — the one that houses his Trump International Hotel in Washington — might violate the Constitution when it allowed Trump to keep the lease after he took office, according to a new report from the agency’s inspector general.

Trump’s company won the lease several years before he became president. After Trump was elected, the GSA had to decide whether his company would be allowed to keep its lease.

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At that time, the inspector general found, the agency should have determined whether the lease of Washington’s Old Post Office building violated the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, which bar presidents from taking payments from foreign governments or individual U.S. states. But it did not, according to the report issued Wednesday.

“We ... found that [the GSA] improperly ignored these Emoluments Clauses, even though the lease itself requires compliance with the laws of the United States, including the Constitution,” the report said.

The findings provide a fresh example of how Trump’s unprecedented decision to maintain ownership of his business while serving in the White House has prompted concerns about potential conflicts of interest and sown confusion among federal regulators, who have struggled to enforce ethical norms related to the presidency.

For instance, the report found that although officials administering the lease — under Presidents Obama and Trump — were aware of the possibility that the Trump hotel’s business with foreign governments could be interpreted as an emoluments violation, the officials often concluded that the issue was someone else’s responsibility and failed to conduct a comprehensive review.

In response to the report Wednesday, the GSA issued a letter saying that the investigation showed there had been no political pressure on the agency — from Trump or anyone else — to let the newly elected president keep his lease. The investigation, the agency said, “found no undue influence, pressure or unwarranted involvement of any kind by anyone.”

Since Trump entered office, his company has hosted events from several foreign embassies and at least one governor, Paul LePage (R-Maine). Trump has since been sued by Democratic members of Congress and the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, who allege in separate lawsuits that these transactions put Trump in violation of the Constitution.

The Trump Organization, which did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday, has denied that it violates the emoluments clauses. It says it tabulates most of the profits it makes from foreign governments and donates the money to the U.S. Treasury. The company last year made a donation of $151,470 and has not made a donation yet this year.

The Wednesday report does not recommend that Trump’s lease be canceled or even modified. However, according to the report, GSA attorneys told the investigators that “if a constitutional violation were later found, they would have to revisit the issue of a potential breach” of contract by the president’s company.

That raises the possibility that if a court finds Trump in violation of the Constitution by continuing to own the hotel — as the plaintiffs in the two cases allege — his company could be found to have violated the contract.

Trump signed a lease for the building in 2013. During the presidential campaign and after he was elected president, congressional Democrats and ethics experts repeatedly questioned GSA officials — then under the Obama administration — about whether Trump would be allowed to keep the deal, particularly since the lease includes a clause barring elected officials from enjoying any “benefit” of the deal.

Obama appointees running the agency took no action, and two months after Trump took office, the agency’s contracting officer for the project issued a letter saying the lease was in compliance. The letter improperly ignored the emoluments clause, Wednesday’s report said.

Congressional Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), plan on making the president’s business and his hotel lease a top target of investigations, now that they control the chamber.

Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, called the report “devastating.”

“President Trump should not have any contracts with the federal government,” he said in a statement. “It is an obvious conflict of interest, and it is why the lease for the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., explicitly prohibits any federal government official from being a party.”

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Another member of the committee, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said that “GSA’s decision to not consider whether the president’s business interest in the Old Post Office lease might be unconstitutional has enabled the president to line his pockets.”

Jonathan O’Connell and David A. Fahrenthold write for the Washington Post.

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