President-elect Donald Trump leases the Trump International Hotel Washington, a palatial offering in the Old Post Office Building located between the White House and Capitol Hill, and is facing bipartisan pressure to divest his holdings in the business.
Politico reports that, despite legal experts agreeing that it's clear conflict of interest for the president to own a business that may be used to enrich him personally, there's doubt that he could be legally forced to remove himself from the contract:
Two top lawyers made waves this week with the suggestion that Trump will have to unload the hotel because a line in his contract with the General Services Administration says the lease can’t benefit a government official. But other contracting experts say that argument isn’t a slam dunk, and if the GSA declines to fight Trump over it, no one else has the ability to intervene.
“This is a horrible outcome that can only be resolved by the president doing the right thing,” said David Drabkin, a former GSA senior procurement executive. “And I don’t know how you force him to do the right thing if he doesn’t choose to do it.”
Trump does not, apparently, believe he is required to divest himself of the hotel. He has stated that he believes it to be impossible for the president to have a conflict of interest, although he is on record via Twitter saying his lawyers are drawing up plans to remove him from his business interests. This does not fix the problem with Trump International Hotel, however, because, according to the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, he would need to stop owning the properties completely to avoid the appearance of conflict.
According to Politico, the issue is complicated and arises from how the contract is worded, specifically the part that states no U.S. official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
Legal experts are divided on the interpretation of the word "admitted," with some saying that the president must break the lease before he takes office, and some saying that the word merely indicates he can't enter into such a lease once he is president -- but he can hold the lease if it was granted before he assumed office.
High ranking Democrats led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) have already written a letter to the General Services Administration demanding that Trump divest himself of ownership. Meanwhile, according to Politico, "Foreign dignitaries have already discussed patronizing the Washington hotel to curry favor with the next president. The Middle Eastern country of Bahrain has booked a reception there."
Steve Schooner, a George Washington University law professor and former federal procurement official, told Politico that it's a long-held belief that government officials shouldn't hold government contracts, saying the entire system was at risk.
“Would they have awarded the contract to a team that included the president? The answer is no,” he said. “The principle is much more important than money here. The whole world is watching.”
Trump is currently in litigation with Washington, D.C., over tax bills for the same hotel.