Trump Goes Postal, Could Cost Him Millions
The Old Post Office sits in downtown Washington, DC just a few blocks from the White House. The tower has seen much, notably a 1970’s bid to tear it down and replace it with something more “governmental”. Since the successful fight for preservation, the Post Office Tower has been home to the headquarters of the National Endowment for the Arts, among other things. In 2011, the General Services Administration (GSA) invited private parties to bid on potential use of the property while preserving the historic character.
Enter Donald J. Trump. The Trump Organization won the contract to renovate the Post Office that includes a 60–100 year lease on the building. The last two years have been spent turning this historical building into a luxury hotel courtesy of a $200 million makeover. Concerning the optimal location of his hotel Mr. Trump said “It’s very unusual to have that frontage on such an unusual thoroughfare”. Complicating matters, since the signing of the lease Mr. Trump became President-Elect Trump and now has additional frontage on the same thoroughfare.
Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to extricate himself from his complex web of business dealings has raised alarms since his election. Countless potential points of conflict for Mr. Trump exist worldwide, but the Washington DC hotel has the makings of being one of the worst. Foreign diplomats are already booking rooms at the hotel citing concerns that it would be “rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor.’ ” Worse, once Donald Trump becomes President he will appoint the new head of the GSA. Donald Trump’s landlord will then serve at his pleasure.
Legal, especially constitutional law, issues are complex and when it comes to ethics even more so. Mr. Trump has addressed his potential conflicts of interest once.
In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this. I’d assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you don’t.
Mr. Trump is technically right on what the current regulations state. Federal conflict of interest laws do exempt both the President and Congress from having conflicts of interest. The spirit of the law, however, would seem to suggest additional scrutiny is warranted with regards to Trump. No matter how the larger conflicts of interest work out, Trump’s DC hotel lease is another matter entirely.
Specific language in the lease is exceedingly clear on exactly what will happen on January 20th. On that day Mr. Trump will be in violation of his lease.
As a elected official, Donald Trump cannot be a part of this lease or receive any benefit from it. Even if hypothetically there was absolutely no contact with their Presidential father, Trump’s children taking over the lease would still be in violation. Part of the lease necessitates the annual renegotiation of the rent level by the Trump Organization with the GSA, currently at $3 million. There is no way to avoid Trump’s position in the Executive Branch influencing the negotiations since Trump, as president, appoints the head of the GSA. There is no option expect to end this lease. In response Trump could sue, which would end up costing the taxpayers some money regardless of the outcome, but make for a fantastic movie: sitting President sues his own government.
Addressing ethics and lease violations are not actions the GSA seems keen on taking. Turfing (passing off a problem to another agency and avoiding responsibility, i.e. getting it off your turf) is a common move in bureaucratic politics and the GSA has been attempting to do just this with the issue of the hotel. A GSA spokesman, responding to the issue stated:
It is the Office of Government Ethics that provides guidance to the executive branch on questions of ethics and conflicts of interest. The GSA plans to coordinate with the president-elect’s team to address any issues that may be related to the Old Post Office building.
A true, but misleading statement. The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) does provide guidance, but that is all they provide. In their own words:
OGE’s mission is one of prevention. OGE does not adjudicate complaints, investigate matters within the jurisdiction of Inspectors General and other authorities, or prosecute ethics violations.
Ultimately the decision on the Post Office lease rests with the GSA. We can hope that such a bastion of ethics as the federal bureaucracy will live up to its mandate, but all evidence suggests that federal agencies will roll over and lick Mr. Trump’s boots rather than obeying their own codes of conduct. Mr. Trump may have skirted the law as a private businessman, but the rules are different for holders of public office as critics of the Clinton Foundation well know. “Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach . . . to avoid . . . even the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Besides, its just business and Mr. Trump should have no problem letting the Post Office go as he previously stated talking in his New York Times interview expressly about this hotel.
“I don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to me is running our country.”
OK Mr. Trump, prove it.
Points of Contact:
GSA Inspector General — Carol Ochoa (202) 501–0450, Twitter
GSA Designated Agency Ethics Official — Kris E. Drummer (202) 501–2200 Alternate: Eugenia D. Ellison (202) 501–1460