Donald Trump hasn’t taken the oath of office yet and he’s already making history as one of the most conflicted presidents ever.
The billionaire businessman’s vast holdings have created a unique set of potential conflicts of interest—but none are as prominent as the one down the street from the very home he will occupy come January.
That’s because the Trump International Hotel is in the Old Post Office building, which is leased to Trump and his family by the federal government. The very federal government he will soon control. The lease agreement signed in 2013 with the General Services Administration (GSA) stipulates that “no elected official” can be part of the lease, so the president-elect faces an immediate conflict when he takes office.
And no one knows what to do.
Enter four top House Democrats, who sent a letter Wednesday to the GSA asking for a solution to the large, marble conflict of interest down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“This is not a hypothetical conflict—there is a clear and very real conflict that will be triggered the moment Mr. Trump is sworn in as President of the United States unless concrete steps are taken now to avert it,” the letter signed by Representative Elijah Cummings and three ranking members of the committees on Oversight and Government Reform and the House Transportation and Infrastructure said.
Separately, all 16 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee signed a letter to Chairman Bob Goodlatte requesting that they hold hearings on “federal conflicts-of-interest and ethics provisions that may apply to the President of the United States.”
At this stage, neither the GSA or the Trump Organization has indicated that they are trying to mitigate the problem any time soon. And they are quickly running out of time.
Reached for comment about the potential options that the GSA could take, a spokesman for the administration provided The Daily Beast with the following statement: “Per the Old Post Office Building Redevelopment Act of 2008, Congress directed the General Services Administration to redevelop the Old Post Office Building. GSA ran a fair and open competition, subject to careful and rigorous review, which resulted in the selection of the Trump Organization as the preferred private sector entity to redevelop the Old Post Office. GSA negotiated a lease with the Trump Organization and submitted the details to Congress prior to signing the lease in August 2013.
“It is the Office of Government Ethics that provides guidance to the executive branch on questions of ethics and conflicts of interest. GSA plans to coordinate with the President-elect’s team to address any issues that may be related to the Old Post Office building.”
They did not respond to a subsequent question about whether they would consider terminating the lease as a means of ending the conflict.
The Office of Government Ethics did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
Similarly, the Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a question either.
While both sides wait to take action, the hotel, which has already become a hub of activity for diplomats attempting to curry favor with the new administration, will host an official event for the Kingdom of Bahrain on December 7.
“Interesting the Bahrain party is booked for December 7 “a day of infamy” as President Roosevelt once said,” Sheldon Cohen, an attorney who specializes in national security law and government wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “I am afraid we will see many more days of infamy before this debacle is over, foreign governments are tripping over themselves to curry favor with Trump. This just the beginning. Trump has no concept of self restraint and what he cannot find an excuse for, he will lie about.”
In addition to the announcement of the Bahrain event, it was revealed on Wednesday that Trump’s company was given a $32 million tax subsidy for his hotel less than a week after the election. Once Trump becomes president, he will be functioning as both the landlord and the tenant of the building which would not change until and unless the lease is terminated.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday morning, the President-elect promised that “legal documents are being crafted” which would take him out of business operations. Trump said that the details of this process would be revealed at a press conference in December. But previously, his proposed means of avoiding conflict of interests as president was to hand over the reins to his children. Experts say that this would not mitigate the problems with his D.C. hotel or elsewhere.
“There are several reasons it wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Charles Tiefer, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and former deputy counsel for the House of Representatives, said in a phone interview. “Even if amazing miracles occurred, they would simply shift management, not ownership of the Trump Organization. The [GSA] provision is not a management provision, it’s an ownership provision. It wouldn’t matter if Donald Trump was in a coma and couldn’t communicate a word about management. He’s still owner of the lease.”
The watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, echoed this sentiment saying that “Unless [Trump’s] solution is to sell the business outside the family and put the proceeds in a blind trust, he’s not really doing anything to solve the problem. Just because you say something on twitter, doesn’t make it so.”
Tiefer speculated that Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn, could write something that claims that the president is above this law which would allow the GSA to say “there’s nothing we can do.”
“GSA officials have been hiding their heads in the sand like ostriches hoping that this scandal in the making would somehow blow away,” Tiefer said, who referenced Dick Cheney’s scandal with Halliburton as a similarly problematic conflict of interest.
Experts, like Steven Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at the George Washington University Law School, suggested that it would be easy to transfer the lease agreement to another hotel company in the area.
“Best solution: GSA and Trump (quickly) agree to transfer (or as we say, novate) the entire agreement/contract/lease to another company,” he told The Daily Beast in an email. “Marriott comes to mind. They’re hard hearted in the DC metropolitan area, and they operate dozens of hotels in the area. This property could be re-branded as a JW Marriott, Ritz Carlton, a St. Regis, an Autograph Collection, or maybe even an Edition. Who cares? Easy.”
He added that “leaving the building vacant would be better than the current, sordid situation which makes the U.S. Government resemble a Banana Republic.”