As if trying to poison the Potomac water for the new president on his first day in office, the New York Times Inauguration Day off-lead story tried to wrong-foot Trump the moment he takes his hand off the Bible: “With an Oath, Complications In Hotel Lease – Ethical ‘Minefield’ for the President-Elect” by Eric Lipton and Susanne Craig.
The jump-page headline read, “At Trump Hotel in Washington, Champagne Toasts in an Ethical ‘Minefield.’” The online teaser was blunt: “From the moment he is sworn in, Mr. Trump may be in violation of a lease with the federal government.”
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With sirens blaring, a fleet of limousines and security personnel raced down Pennsylvania Avenue twice in less than 24 hours to deliver Donald J. Trump to inauguration events.
But he was not heading to the White House. He was going to Trump International Hotel.
It was a telling destination for those visits Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon. Perhaps more than any other location in Mr. Trump’s real estate empire, this 263-room hotel epitomizes the convergence of Donald Trump the global businessman and Donald Trump the president-elect.
Conflicts that for months have been theoretical are now about to become real -- most immediately a possible challenge by the federal government. It owns the building that houses Mr. Trump’s hotel and has granted him a 60-year lease. From the moment he is sworn in as president at noon Friday, Mr. Trump may be in violation of that lease, given a provision that appears to prohibit federal elected officials from renting the Old Post Office building, the Pennsylvania Avenue landmark that houses the hotel, from the government.
Guests at the hotel include foreign diplomats and politicians who could be looking to curry favor with Mr. Trump -- but even the act of paying their bills as they check out after the inauguration may open Mr. Trump to a challenge that he has violated the United States Constitution, which prohibits federal government officials from taking payments or gifts from foreign governments.
While Davos elites gather with little criticism, the Times tried to make a little luxury amongst Trump supporters sound sinister.
Nearby, in the lobby bar, guests drank Champagne and ordered expensive cocktails off a drink menu that includes a $100 libation called the Benjamin, made of vodka, raw oysters and caviar. Guests wore red and white “Make America Great Again” hats.
“That building is symbolic of the minefield that President-elect Trump has decided to walk through,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is charged with investigating any potential wrongdoing by government officials. “We are going now from the hypothetical to reality -- and I myself am not sure where it is going to lead.”
The lease between the General Services Administration and the Trump company includes a clause -- “no 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, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom” -- that federal contract experts say makes clear that Mr. Trump will be in violation of the deal as soon as he is sworn in.
“The basic integrity and credibility of the president of the United States of the federal procurement and contracting regime is at risk,” said Steven L. Schooner, a professor specializing in government procurement law at George Washington University. “We are about to have a legitimate scandal on our hands.”
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have said he would donate any profit derived from foreign government hotel guests to the United States Treasury. But Mr. Trump’s critics say that would not eliminate the risk he would be violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which some legal experts say prohibits federal employees from taking gifts or payments from foreign governments.
The Weekly Standard had a less-fevered, more-informed take by Edwin Williamson, who pointed out that divestment would not be nearly so simple as Trump’s media critics make it out to be.
What About the Emoluments Clause? This constitutional clause provides that "no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust . . . 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."
Painter and Eisen, the primary watchdogs, say that any payment by any foreign government or official to any Trump entity is a violation. The problem is that Painter and Eisen have nothing to back up their position. Period. There are no court decisions or OLC opinions that support this view.
Trump, however, is going further than the emoluments clause would require, in order to avoid a problem the media has drummed up -- foreign officials will try to curry favor by staying at Trump hotels. Trump has committed all profits on rooms rented by foreign officials to be paid to the U.S. Treasury. Thus, he has taken all profits out of staying at Trump hotels.
Williamson went after the arguments of one of the Times sources, professor Steven Schooner:
What About the Hotel Lease in Washington, D.C.? Perhaps the highest profile asset in the Trump Organization is the Trump International Hotel....
The armchair critics who contend Trump should divest his interest in the hotel lease must not understand what that would entail. From this complex document, made even more difficult to understand by the redactions in the GSA's public copy, one can decipher this: Trump has personally guaranteed the net worth of the lessee, and it cannot be transferred except to an entity that meets specified financial requirement. Add to that the general perception in the D.C. real estate business that Trump substantially overbid his competitors for the lease, and one can see what the GSA has at stake in any proposed transfer of Trump's interest -- and in releasing him from his guarantee! And who will be the GSA's boss? President Trump. Again, the media's favorite "solution" only creates new conflicts.
The negative front page stories on Trump on the day of his inauguration marked a tonal shift from what greeted Obama in his own Inauguration Day in 2009, all blandly positive, including the lead: “On Eve of History, Obama Follows Low-Key Path.” The corresponding headline for Trump was a bit grimmer: “Trump Arrives, Set To Assume Power.”