USA Today: Watchdog: Federal property managers ignored whether Trump hotel lease violated Constitution
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WASHINGTON – Federal officials who leased the Old Post Office Building to President Donald Trump were aware of constitutional provisions that could breach the lease, but “decided not to address those issues,” according to a government watchdog report Wednesday.
The lease for the Trump International Hotel a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House remains contentious both because foreigners stay at the hotel, which enriches the president, and because Trump oversees the agency that holds his lease.
A 47-page report released Wednesday by Inspector General Carol Ochoa found "serious shortcomings" at the General Services Administration, which manages federal property, for not asking the Office of Legal Counsel to study constitutional issues related to the lease.
GSA selected Trump to convert the 1890s building into a 260-room hotel in February 2012. The lease calls for at least $3 million in rent per year. The Trump International Hotel officially opened Oct. 26, 2016 – days before he was elected president.
The crux of the problem outlined by the inspector general for GSA is a set of provisions in the Constitution called emoluments clauses, which basically prohibit the president from profiting from foreigners or from getting additional compensation during his term in office.
“GSA’s analysis should have considered whether the Foreign Emoluments Clause or the Presidential Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution barred the President’s business interest in Tenant,” the inspector-general report said. "GSA's decision-making process related to Tenant's possible breach of the lease included serious shortcomings."
But Jack St. John, the GSA’s general counsel, said investigators interviewed two dozen employees and reviewed 10,000 documents and found no political influence exerted to obtain the lease.
“Any commentary resulting from the report that suggests the agency took any action in order to protect the President’s business interests is therefore plainly meritless,” St. John wrote. “We also note that the report, despite its lengthy historical analysis of the Emoluments Clauses, does not find that any constitutional violation occurred.”
The White House didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees GSA, said the agency’s disregard for the Constitution “is beyond troubling.”
“The GSA is required to act in the best interest of the American people and is expected to hold the President accountable should he attempt to exploit his office for personal gain,” Quigley said. “Unfortunately, the GSA ignored that responsibility, turning a blind eye as the resident continues to personally profit from his hotel in violation of the lease agreement."
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the advocacy group filed a complaint with GSA “seconds after President Trump took the oath of office” because of the lease and days later filed a lawsuit.
“President Trump stood in violation of the Constitution the moment he took office, and compounded the problem by improperly holding the lease on a government building,” Bookbinder said. “The corruption of the presidency has never been clearer.”
The uncertainty over whether the emoluments clauses breach the lease remains unresolved, according to the report.
“According to one senior attorney, the emoluments issues did not become a hot button issue until after the election,” the report said. “One attorney told us they decided not to ‘spin their wheels’ on something that was not before them and, if necessary, they could address the issue another day.”