March 9, 2017
Top GSA Official’s Exit Paves the Way for Trump to Continue Using Presidency to Promote Family Businesses
Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen
Note: Note: According to press reports, Norman Dong, head of public buildings at the General Services Administration since 2014 has announced that he is leaving the agency in the coming weeks. His departure raises additional questions about the intentions of President Donald Trump’s administration to resolve conflicts of interest between his public duties and private businesses.
Donald Trump’s ruthless disregard for anti-corruption measures and l’etat-c’est-moi mentality is running roughshod over governmental systems of checks and balances designed to curb abuses of power.
Trump’s most outrageous conflict of interest involves the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which is on property and in a building leased from the U.S. government. There is no way to look at the lease agreement and conclude anything other than that the president is in breach. “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” is as clear and straightforward as contract language gets.
But the government agency in charge of the lease, the General Services Administration (GSA), has failed to enforce the lease provision, which is standard language in government lease contracts and a commonsense anti-corruption measure.
It’s not hard to see why the GSA has failed to act. Who in government wants to tell their boss – the most powerful person in the world, who brags about his vindictiveness – that he is violating his contract and must either terminate the contract or sever his ownership stake in the hotel? Now comes the news that the GSA official in charge of the lease is resigning, presumably to escape an untenable job situation.
We can only hope that the official, Norman Dong, will, on his way out, notify President Trump that he is in breach of the GSA lease and must either divest his stake in the hotel or see the lease terminated.
If Mr. Dong is not so inclined, it is awfully hard to imagine his successor, appointed while Trump is president, will take action. Government checks will have failed.
This matters, and in ways that far exceed the self-enrichment concerns at the heart of the GSA standard lease provision. Just Wednesday, The Washington Post reported on a concerted effort by the candy industry to hold conferences and meetings in the Trump hotels to curry favor with the president.
The operation of the Trump International Hotel just down the street from the White House represents an institutionalization of cronyism on a scale never seen in American history.
Although the story may be apocryphal, it is said that the term “lobbyist” was invented by Ulysses Grant to refer to the wheelers and dealers who hung around the Willard Hotel to seek favors when Grant went there for a drink. But in that story, Grant found the influence seekers annoying; he wasn’t soliciting them and accepting payments from them – and he didn’t own the hotel.