After months of silence, the head of the General Services Administration during the final years of the Obama administration explained in an interview her much-criticized decision not to challenge President Trump’s maintenance of a lease on Washington’s Old Post Office that earns profits from his Trump International Hotel.
In a conversation last week with the Washington Post, Denise Turner Roth—now a senior adviser at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global engineering and professional services organization—cited the need to avoid interfering in politics and the absence of clear contract language on her authority to force the president’s hand.
She said she personally favored having Trump remove a conflict of interest by divesting himself of the renovated luxury hotel where, critics point out, foreign visitors may stay in the hope of currying favor with the nearby White House. (Trump in January promised to turn his business interests over to his adult children and donate profits from stays by foreign government representatives at the hotel to the U.S. Treasury.)
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“ ‘What would you do if this were any other lease?’ That’s what we kept coming back to,” Turner Roth told reporter Jonathan O’Connell. “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.”
Critics, who include former White House officials and lawmakers, have said the contract language prevents an office holder from being both a landlord and tenant. “From my perspective, divesting would have been the right move,” Turner Roth said last week. “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.”
The closest call, Roth told the Post, was 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 the president was not an elected official while she was in office, so he might not technically have been in violation on her watch, added Roth—who left office on Inauguration Day. “We didn’t have a basis as to why we would be canceling the lease,” she said. “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.”
One critic of Roth and the Trump arrangement who has voiced his views in Government Executive is Steven Schooner, a professor of procurement law at The George Washington University, who is helping with lawsuits seeking to block Trump’s arrangement.
“She demonstrated a unique level of cowardice and self-preservation instead of focusing on the interests of the nation,” he told the Post. “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.”
As Schooner wrote earlier, he believes GSA could have justified terminating the lease in court. “The worst thing that can happen is that the government will be liable for monetary damages. …To the extent that damages could be awarded, we expect them to be nominal at best,” he reiterated to Government Executive on Tuesday. “Courts are skeptical of claims for anticipatory profits, primarily because any such recovery is, by its very nature, speculative. Regardless, it would be a price worth paying to preserve the integrity of our government and its contracting system.”