Federal agency admits it gave Trump a pass by ignoring his potential violation of the Constitution
On Wednesday, the inspector general for the General Services Administration faulted the agency for failing to consider whether the lease of the Old Post Office Building to create the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
MarketWatch was one of the first to report the story:
The decision to "exclude the emoluments issues from GSA's consideration of the lease was improper because GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution; and because the lease, itself, requires that consideration," the inspector general said.The GSA says it will update the terms of the lease to address the inspector general's concerns, and emphasizes that the process for approving the lease was agreed to before President Donald Trump took office. But former Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub blasted the GSA for their carelessness, noting that they were repeatedly asked about these legal issues at the time and passed the buck:
The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution states that "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." Essentially, this bars the president from accepting gifts from foreign governments — something the founders feared could make the president beholden to those governments.
The problem is that the Trump Hotel makes it very easy for Trump to receive emoluments. From its inception, the hotel was popular with foreign diplomats visiting D.C., including from states like Turkey with questionable human rights records. The government of Kuwait even held a party at the Trump Hotel in 2017 that could have cost up to $60,000. Worse still, Arturo Sarukhan, the former Mexican Ambassador to the United States, has alleged that the State Department is encouraging world leaders to stay at Trump properties.
Trump's lawyers have argued that the Emoluments Clause doesn't apply here because these are simply business transactions at fair-market value — but that argument is shaky at best. For one thing, the Trump Hotel charges 40 percent more for a room than similar hotels in the same area. For another, legal experts Joshua Matz and Lawrence Tribe assert that if foreign powers are trying to influence Trump, "fair market value" is meaningless because you cannot buy the official actions of a politician.
The whole constitutional issue could be avoided if Trump divested from the Trump Organization — but he has refused to do so. Trump has tried to claim he will avoid constitutional issues by giving foreign funds to the U.S. Treasury — a dubious approach at best — but neither the White House nor the Trump Organization will confirm they have, and Trump still refuses to release his tax returns.
In addition to the inspector general's criticism of the GSA lease, Trump is facing a federal lawsuit over emoluments brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C. Last November, a federal judge allowed this lawsuit to proceed.