Nearly one year after the surprise election victory of a presidential candidate who also owns the lease to a major Washington hotel, a dozen Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform panel have filed a lawsuit against the General Services Administration to obtain documents on the hotel’s operations and revenues.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member on the committee, on Thursday brought 11 colleagues and an attorney to an outdoor press briefing on Capitol Hill—staged with enlarged photos of the historic Old Post Office now renovated as the Trump International Hotel.
“The Trump administration has refused all of our requests for documents about the Trump Hotel for the better part of this year,” Cummings said. “They have refused to provide basic documents about the hotel’s ongoing operations, foreign payments to the hotel, or the reversal of GSA’s legal position that President Trump could not be a party to the lease.”
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The complaint in U.S. District for the District of Columbia, which names acting GSA administrator Tim Horne as defendant, invokes a 1928 law known as the Seven Member statute. “This law is specific to the Oversight Committee in the House of Representatives,” Cummings said. “It provides that any seven members of our committee may seek documents from a federal agency, and that agency ‘shall’ produce them.”
Cummings and other Democrats said that the Obama administration’s GSA had responded to their earlier inquiries about the newly elected Trump’s status as both landlord and tenant of the hotel—as well to legal charges that his arrangement violates contract law and the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. “But all that stopped on Jan. 20,” Cummings said, with the new GSA providing only copies of the lease.
The Democrats’ outdoor presser came hours after a business meeting of the House Oversight panel in which Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., stayed away, having declined to agree to Democrats’ demands to issue six bipartisan subpoenas for documents relating to an array of controversies—White House use of personal email, the ouster of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the federal response to recent hurricanes, and the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
“In my opinion, House Republicans are aiding and abetting President Trump’s ongoing abuses,” Cummings said. “This lawsuit is not just about a hotel in Washington D.C. This is about the president defying a federal statute and denying our ability as members of Congress to fulfill our constitutional duty to serve as a check on the executive branch.”
The House Democrats’ lawsuit joins several others from nonprofits and from restaurateurs who claim that the Trump hotel is providing unfair competition by siphoning off business brought by representatives of foreign governments, who allegedly seek to curry favor with Trump by patronizing his hotels. (For an elected official to profit from gifts by foreign government envoys is the type of exchange said to be addressed by the Constitution’s foreign Emoluments Clause.)
Oral arguments in New York City on Oct. 18 in a case brought by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington drew an argument from the federal government that the plaintiffs may not have standing to sue, and that the Emoluments Clause does not cover the president.
The inspector general for GSA is also reviewing the agency’s controversial decision to permit the Trump family to maintain its lease arrangement, though Cummings on Thursday told reporters that an IG’s work does not relieve lawmakers of their duty to enforce their own oversight responsibilities. “We don’t want agencies to go thinking that when we’re asking for documents, they can say, ‘The hell with you,’ ” Cummings added.
The Democrats’ lawsuit is being directed pro bono by Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck, a noted specialist in civil procedure and federal courts and a former Federal Trade Commission bureau director. The goal, he said, is to obtain documents that reveal revenue streams from foreign guests—proceeds from which Trump has promised to donate to the government.
Vladeck told reporters that recent rulings in D.C. courts have shown that such cases are granted standing, given that these lawmakers are suing as committee members, not as individuals. The government will have 60 days to reply, he said.
Nearly all the dozen Democrats took turns at the microphone. After Cummings called the Trump International Hotel “a glaring symbol of the Trump administration’s lack of accountability,” Rep. Jaime Raskin, D-Md., called it “the Washington Emolument.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said, “This is not a petty dispute. By law we have a right, not a privilege” to gain access to documents, despite Republican resistance, to resolve questions about whether foreign powers from countries like Turkey and the Philippines are using the hotel to influence the president. “We stand at a precarious moment as the committee of jurisdiction that holds the executive branch accountable,” Connolly added.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he was “astonished that the president, as a billionaire, would want to make a few extra bucks selling $40 martinis and $100 steaks to people who want to get close to the president.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who in 2012 helped GSA put the Old Post Office site out for bids for the renovation award eventually won by the Trump Organization, said, “The hotel sits on federal land, so we need federal oversight. The purpose is to raise revenue for the federal government, and we need oversight to make sure Trump lives up to his obligations.”
A GSA spokeswoman said “GSA does not comment on pending litigation.” Chairman Gowdy declined to comment.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said in a statement, “Refusing to recognize the rights of minority members of Congress to conduct oversight is a dangerous precedent, and members on both sides of the aisle have rightfully spoken against similar refusals. We urge GSA to swiftly produce the documents the members requested.”