This week, we learned that the federal agency in charge of leasing the federal landmark property — the Old Post Office — of former President Donald Trump’s Washington hotel approved a lease that was likely illegal for the duration of Trump’s presidency.
In 2017, the General Services Administration ruled that the Trump International Hotel lease was in “full compliance” with federal law, despite the fact that a clause in the lease expressly prohibited “any elected official” of the federal government from receiving any benefit from the leased property. The GSA stated in a letter to Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump that the lease terms had been met because Trump had resigned from his positions with the Trump Organization and would receive no “direct” earnings from the hotel.
That didn’t make sense. Trump retained ownership of the Trump Organization and its properties, including the Trump International Hotel, throughout his presidency. The fact that the hotel’s profits were distributed to a corporation owned and controlled by Trump rather than to Trump personally was unimportant. Also irrelevant was the fact that he appointed someone else to manage the corporation while he was president — his sons, of course. The same can be said for Trump’s claim of “blind trust.” He couldn’t simply place the Trump hotel and his other properties in a “blind trust” and claim he had no idea he owned them.
“The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s report,” the article continued, “found that the General Services Administration did not track foreign government payments to the hotel or identify the origins of more than $75 million in loans made by Trump and his family to shore up its troubled finances.”
The Trump Organization invested approximately $200 million in converting the Old Post Office into a luxury hotel. The GSA apparently had no idea where $75 million of that money came from. What we do know — and what the GSA was aware of at the time — is that the Trump Organization has significant business dealings with Russia and several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia. We also knew that foreign diplomats and other foreign nationals stayed at the Trump hotel during Trump’s presidency.
This is significant because the Constitution’s emoluments clause expressly prohibits any officer of the federal government from receiving any emolument — that is, a profit or benefit — from a foreign government without the consent of Congress. The founders did not want foreign sovereigns to bribe our government officials. If it is enforced, the emoluments cause prevents this.
Soon after Trump’s election in 2016, Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama’s chief White House ethics lawyer, Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe, a detailed report for the Brookings Institution was written explaining why Trump needed to divest from the majority of his business empire, including the Trump hotel, or he would be in violation of the emoluments clause.
Trump refused to divest his holdings. Instead, he pretended that he was in compliance with the emoluments clause, just as he was with the terms of the GSA lease, because his sons ran the hotel while he owned it. That is complete nonsense.
On January 21, 2017, his first full day in office, he was sued. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as well as hotels and restaurants competing with the Trump Organization, were among the plaintiffs. After more than two years of litigation, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld some of our plaintiffs’ standing and ordered that the case proceed to discovery and trial.
But, as is his way, Trump withheld any information about the hotel’s or his own finances until his final day in office, after which the Supreme Court dismissed the suit as moot.
There was hope that the federal courts would enforce the emoluments clause for the entire four years — from the day the suit was filed in January 2017 until the day it was dismissed as moot after Trump left office — because it was clear that the executive branch, whose senior officials take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States, would not do its job. More details are emerging about how the GSA, the landlord of the Trump hotel lease, simply looked the other way.
Congress must ensure that the emoluments clause is followed. The Protecting Our Democracy Act, which has already passed the House, would do just that. The Senate’s approval of the bill is critical. Without a clear congressional mandate, executive branch agencies will be hesitant to apply the emoluments clause to the president or other powerful senior officials.
This prohibition is critical to our national security, as the founders feared when they drafted and ratified a Constitution with that clause — unless we don’t care if the president or other senior officials receive payoffs from foreign governments that may be our adversaries.
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