Donald Trump will be in breach of a government contract unless he gives up his ownership stake in a luxury Washington, DC, hotel before his inauguration, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday.
The new Trump International Hotel has been at the hub of conflict of interest charges directed at Trump because it is situated in a taxpayer-owned architectural gem, the Old Post Office, which Trump's company leases from the federal government. But the agency that leased the property to Trump, the General Services Administration, told lawmakers that the lease forbids any elected official from holding the lease, the lawmakers said in a letter addressed to the agency’s administrator.
If Trump refused to give up the hotel after his inauguration next month, the GSA would typically drag him before an obscure, independent tribunal that oversees disputes involving federal agencies, the letter said. It said Trump’s team has not responded to the agency’s communications about the matter.
Update: After this story was published, a GSA spokesperson sent a statement to BuzzFeed News denying that the federal agency had any a position at all on whether Trump would need to divest to be in compliance with the lease. The spokesperson did point out that the language of the lease specifically says “[N]o member or delegate to Congress, or elected official of the Government of the United States or the Government of the District of Columbia, shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease.” She said that it was “premature” to make any statement about what would be a breach.
In an interview, she denied that there was any difference between the agency's latest statement and what the GSA had told the lawmakers.
The letter, signed by four Democratic lawmakers, comes amid intense debate about how Trump’s business ties could conflict with his duties as President. The hotel, located just a few blocks from the White House, has drawn scrutiny as foreign diplomats and others interested in influencing the government stayed or planned events there in the weeks since Trump’s victory on Nov. 8. Critics say that once Trump is president, he would be able to fire the head of the GSA, effectively making him both landlord and tenant — a classic conflict of interest.
The lease between Trump and the GSA says that no “elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” Lawmakers including Rep. Elijah Cummings, one of the signers of the letter and the senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, previously urged Trump to sell his stake in the hotel.
An official from the GSA agreed that Trump must give up both managing and owning the hotel, Cummings and his colleagues wrote in Tuesday’s letter. In a briefing last week, they said, the agency’s deputy commissioner for its Public Buildings Service told staff that Trump otherwise “will be in breach of the lease agreement the moment he takes office.”
The official rejected alternative interpretations of the lease that have been floated in the press — including that the language only applied to people who were elected before the lease was signed, the letter said. It said that if Trump did not sell his share, he would be given 30 days to address the issue, then would be brought before the US Civilian Board of Contract Appeals.
A GSA spokeswoman declined comment. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
BuzzFeed News reported that the GSA planned to talk with the Trump transition team about the lease. Now, the agency has informed the Trump transition team about the imminent contract breach, the letter said, but the agency has received no communication from Trump or his associates.
In the letter, the lawmakers noted that even if Trump sold his stake in the hotel and allowed his children to run it, Trump’s daughter Ivanka would be “all of the following — the President-elect’s daughter, a top presidential transition team official, a lessee under the contract GSA oversees, and the primary contact for GSA on the lease. The conflicts of interest are obvious.”
Congressional staff asked during the briefing what would happen if Trump appointed a new top lawyer or administrator for the agency who sought to overrule its current interpretation of the lease. According to the letter, the deputy commissioner said that GSA contracting officials “are independent, base their decisions on the laws and regulations governing the contracts they oversee, and would not change their positions based on political influence."