Denise Turner Roth’s phone began ringing almost as soon as the presidential election results were in. Everyone was asking: Would her agency pull the plug on Donald Trump’s lease for a Washington property where he had just opened a luxury hotel?
Roth, the top federal official at the agency overseeing the Old Post Office Pavilion, decided to leave office on Inauguration Day without ending Trump’s lease, leaving in place a business relationship between the president and a federal agency that some experts consider untenable.
In her first public remarks since leaving office, Roth told The Washington Post last week that she personally thinks President Trump should divest from the property but that the lease offered no valid reason to force him to do so.
The former head of the General Services Administration, the federal government’s chief landlord, Roth said her decision was based on a technical reading of Trump’s lease and an interest in ensuring that the GSA maintained its integrity in a heated moment.
She said she and her staff asked: “What would you do if this were any other lease? That’s what we kept coming back to. It was important for our motivations to not be seen as doing something political. Considering the role [the agency] was in and the political times, we needed to be as apolitical as possible.”
The interview marked the first time Roth explained how she reached her conclusion, one blasted in a May editorial in the New York Times.
Roth has been likened to a sort of anti-Sally Yates, a reference to the former deputy attorney general who was fired by Trump after saying she could not legally defend one of his executive orders. By comparison, Roth has been accused of avoiding the lease decision to protect her own interests, since, after leaving government, she joined a company that does business with the GSA.
Roth says Trump should sell his stake in the opulent Pennsylvania Avenue hotel, which has become a destination for political movers and shakers and an ethical test for the administration.
“From my perspective, divesting would have been the right move,” she said. “We shouldn’t have this question that we’re in about whether he’s a leaseholder while he’s the president and whether there is a clause affecting him. But those are his concerns.”
Trump’s lease, signed with the GSA in 2013, posed myriad ethical concerns that surfaced even before his election. In fall 2016, his company opened the 263-room hotel in the prime-location historic property that had fallen into disrepair.
Trump gave no indication that he would divest his interest in the property; maintaining his interest allows him to profit from it while in office. As president, he could appoint a replacement for Roth, giving himself a say on both sides of landlord-tenant negotiations.
With fewer than a dozen weeks between Election Day and the inauguration, Roth said she and GSA lawyers asked for more information from the Trump Organization about who would oversee the project and how the president’s stake would be managed, information that did not entirely arrive before her watch ended.
She said the lawyers determined that the GSA had very narrow grounds on which to possibly act.
“The question we were focused on was the lease, whether there was any violation to the lease,” she added. “And if there was concern about how the president handled the lease once he took office, how could we deal with that?”
The closest call, Roth said, was over a clause in the agreement saying that no elected officials “shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
But even that, Roth said, did not put Trump clearly in violation. For instance, the president was not an elected official while she was in office, so he might not technically have been in violation on her watch.
“We didn’t have a basis as to why we would be canceling the lease. If the suggestion was we would cancel the lease because of a clause that said that as an elected official he couldn’t be in this lease, that was not a clear question to answer,” she said.
Many of the initial concerns about leaving the agreement in place, however, have materialized since Roth handed over control of the agency Jan. 20.
Trump broke with tradition and the advice of the government’s top ethics official by declining to divest from the hotel. Foreign governments and lobbyists book rooms and meetings there, prompting lawsuits claiming that the president uses the hotel to unfairly capitalize on his office.
Two months after Trump entered the White House, the hotel project’s contracting officer, a career GSA bureaucrat many rungs down the ladder from Roth’s old post, ruled that there was no breach of the lease.
The ruling reignited scorn for Roth’s inaction, particularly in left-leaning circles.
Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the decision to allow the agreement rendered the lease terms “meaningless.”
This month, a New York Times editorial took direct aim at Roth, calling her inaction “mystifying” and suggesting that she may have avoided a confrontation with Trump to better position herself in her new post as a senior adviser for WSP USA, a management and consulting firm with GSA contracts.
“She demonstrated a unique level of cowardice and self-preservation instead of focusing on the interests of the nation,” said Steven L. Schooner, a professor of procurement law at George Washington University who is advising in a lawsuit brought by the owners of Cork Wine Bar against the president and the hotel. “We have seen through the process that GSA was far more interested in being hyper-technical than making any effort to do the right thing.”
Schooner said there were obvious reasons for the GSA to act, among them the financial interest the president would have in overseeing the GSA, the clause barring elected leaders, the evidence of possible emoluments (gifts or payments from foreign governments) and Trump’s $25 million settlement in a fraud case against his online real estate school, which Schooner said would have given the GSA grounds to terminate the hotel lease.
He said it was far more likely that Roth acted to avoid confrontation.
“What is the difference between Denise Roth and Sally Yates?” Schooner said. “One did the right thing and was applauded by right-thinking people for putting the country above her own self interests.”
The GSA declined to comment.
Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday that congressional scrutiny of the deal was essential with Trump in office.
“Since he refuses to divest, congressional oversight of the GSA lease is more critical than ever,” Cummings said in a statement.
Roth acknowledged that putting the fate of the president’s 60-year lease in the hands of career staffers placed them under unusual pressure that could lead to favorable decisions for Trump.
“It’s hard to say that as the head of the government that the president wouldn’t somehow influence benefits that would occur, financial benefits that could occur to the hotel,” she said.
But Roth said she had little to gain personally by deferring a decision.
In her new job, which she began in April, she is not permitted to lobby the GSA for two years because of federal ethics rules. WSP issued a statement describing her duties as focusing on “revitalization issues, smart cities, performance measures and organization development for private and public clients.”
The Trump Organization declined to comment for this story. It has said that it has taken appropriate steps to separate the business from the president and that the company will donate profits from foreign sources to the U.S. Treasury at the end of the year.