The General Services Administration ignored “issues under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses” when it decided in March 2017 that President Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel was in full compliance of its lease of Washington’s Old Post Office Building.
The IG investigation focused on whether GSA management followed correct decision-making procedures in addressing whether Trump’s D.C. hotel — located in the Old Post Office Building down the street from the White House — violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from profiting from foreign governments.
The IG writes in the report that “GSA recognized that the President’s business interest in the OPO lease raised issues under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses that might cause a breach of the lease; however, GSA decided not to address those issues in connection with the management of the lease.”
The report goes on to call the decision to ignore the emoluments issues “improper because GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution.”
In a somewhat snarky response letter, GSA writes that it agrees with the report’s “single recommendation” and that it “appreciates your continued assistance in identifying ways to better deliver value and savings in real estate, acquisition, technology, and other mission-support services across government.”
The IG notes that its report does not address the core issue of whether Trump is violating the emoluments clause by profiting off the hotel, and instead focused on whether “there were any improprieties in GSA’s decision-making process regarding these issues.”
The in-house watchdog concludes that GSA’s decision to — in the words of one of its sources — “punt” on the issue was improper because, apart from being a body subject to the Constitution itself, it had made emolument clause-related decisions in other cases. The agency was also found to have “ignored” emoluments opinions from the White House’s office of legal counsel, and did not contact the office for guidance on the issue.
Trump’s issues with the hotel project came to a head after he was elected. The hotel opened less than two weeks before the election, and the IG report states that GSA attorneys began discussing emoluments-related concerns in November 2016.
By December 2016, agency attorneys had chosen not to “consider whether the President’s business interest” might violate the emoluments clause.
GSA attorneys purportedly told the IG that they chose to “ignore the emoluments issues” for a few reasons. Namely, they claimed that the agency doesn’t handle constitutional issues, and therefore that the emoluments clause was not in the agency’s “purview.” The GSA officials said that there was no formal decision-making process, but that they agreed that the potential emoluments violation was “bigger than GSA.”
After Trump’s inauguration, watchdog groups began to sue the government, alleging that Trump’s ownership of the hotel — and others — violated the emoluments clause. Shortly after the first lawsuits were filed, GSA lawyers told the Trump Org in a January 2017 meeting that “GSA would not raise any issues concerning the Emoluments Clauses,” according to the IG report.
At what seems to have been the same meeting, Eric Trump and Don Jr. appeared. A GSA attorney “strongly encouraged the President’s divestiture” from the hotel, with the lawyer in question telling the inspector general that he “pushed hard” on the issue to avoid controversy.
The IG several officials at GSA, some of whom were deeply involved in the decision-making process. But the report notes that the IG office attempted to “interview former GSA General Counsel Kris Durmer, but he declined.”
The investigation also covered more than 10,000 agency documents and messages related to the Trump lease – which earns the agency $3 million in rent annually.
The IG issued a recommendation that GSA “conduct a formal legal review” of the emoluments issue.
The GSA’s reply repeatedly notes that the report “does not find that any constitutional violation occurred.” The agency then says that the “apparent purpose” of one section of the IG investigation “is to support the proposition that an Emoluments violation is merely possible.”
It adds that GSA is “gratified to learn” that the IG’s “rigorous, sixteen-month” probe established that it made “an impartial decision free of undue influence” in the Trump hotel matter.
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