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Lawmakers question GSA chief over Trump’s hotel lease, failed FBI headquarters

A demonstrator wears a large likeness of President Trump at a protest outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington in June while Trump was attending a fundraiser at the hotel. (Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo)
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Democratic members of Congress sharply questioned President Trump’s interim chief of the General Services Administration, the agency that leases Trump his hotel, over why the lease has remained in place and why the agency has repeatedly failed to disclose information about the project.

“We have a situation where the president is both the landlord and the tenant,” said Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

Democratic staff produced a 24-page report on the hotel laying out an argument against the GSA’s ruling that Trump’s company remains in compliance with the lease despite a clause in the agreement barring any “elected official of the government of the United States” from deriving “any benefit” from the arrangement.

The report argues that Trump’s hotel relies heavily on “emoluments” business in violation of the Constitution. Although Trump has stepped down from his company and pledged to donate some foreign profits from the hotel, he retains majority ownership of the business.

In March, the GSA ruled that the lease was in compliance because Trump had vowed not to receive benefits from the lease until he leaves office. Since then it has provided incomplete or nonanswers to five letters of inquiry about the project, DeFazio said, accusing the agency of “very unprofessional conduct” for its lack of transparency.

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DeFazio issued a flurry of questions to Tim Horne, who was named acting GSA administrator on Jan. 20 by the Trump administration: How could the lease be in compliance given that clause? What did Horne think of the contacting officer’s conduct? Why was a career GSA official removed by the Trump administration as the president took office?

Horne, a career civil servant and nearly 25-year GSA veteran, remains acting administrator of the agency because Trump has not appointed a permanent leader. He told the subcommittee, which oversees public buildings and economic development, that his job was “to create an environment where contracting officers” can make business decisions insulated from politics.

Horne told Rep. Hank Johnson, Jr. (D-Ga.) that he was “not an expert” on the Constitution’s emoluments clause and that it wasn’t his job to be. “GSA’s role is not to determine compliance with the emoluments clause and the Constitution,” he said.

He also told Johnson that he had never spoken to Trump, Ivanka Trump or her husband, Jared Kushner. “I have never spoken on this matter or any other matter with any of those individuals,” he said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked whether Horne was blind to the Constitution in administering the lease: “Are you ignoring the provision of the Constitution?”

“My role is to make sure the agency is administrating the lease, and as far as I know that clause is not in the lease,” he said.

Democrats have repeatedly chafed at a Trump administration policy of not providing information to congressional committees on matters of oversight unless requested to do so by Republican leaders. Democratic leadership on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has sent three “seven-member letters” — meaning they carry signatures from seven members of Congress — triggering a rule requiring the administration to provide documents, but have not received responses.

DeFazio and other Democrats at the hearing Wednesday introduced a “resolution of inquiry” aimed at forcing the GSA to produce documents related to the hotel.

Horne did not commit to providing information on the project. “We will continue to work with the committee,” he said repeatedly.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who pushed for the Old Post Office to be redeveloped for years before Trump won the lease deal there, said in an interview following the hearing that she was amazed at “the lack of forthrightness and transparency” on the part of the Trump administration, especially information on revenue the property produces for the government. The Trump Organization pays the GSA $250,000 a month in rent and is required to share 3 percent of profits.

“Why would they keep that from us?” she said.

The GSA’s cancellation this week of a plan to build a new FBI headquarters in the Washington suburbs also drew questions from Republicans Lou Barletta (Pa.) and Barbara Comstock (Va.). Barletta said he was not surprised the project had been derailed because of the proposed swap of the J. Edgar Hoover Building to the winning bidder.

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“By structuring the procurement as an exchange, the previous administration precluded the project from being built in phases,” like other government complexes, Barletta said. “That can only happen with full funding of the project, which the GSA does not have.”

Barletta said other structures such as a ground lease could advance the plans. “We have the opportunity to fix this project and get it back on track,” he said.

Another member of the panel, Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, was happy to discuss other topics. A new law requires the creation of a government board aimed at selling unneeded federal real estate. Pittsburgh recently studied nearly 300 facilities in the city and is working to gain control of a long-vacant Veterans Affairs medical center.

“For purposes of today, I’m glad I didn’t stay at the Trump hotel last night,” Acklin said.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz