USA First Look

Festivities at D.C. Trump hotel shine spotlight on ethics concerns

The Trump Organization may have already violated a provision in its lease of Trump International Hotel, drawing ethical questions surrounding the relationship between President Trump’s administration and business ties back into play.

Police stand guard outside the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., Thursday. While President Donald Trump’s hotel did serve as a hub of inaugural activities, it also stands as ground zero for what top Democrats and some ethics advisers see as his unique web of conflicts of interest.
John Minchillo/AP | Caption

As Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., welcomed the president last week, it may have also opened the door to ethical challenges.

On Friday, red, white, and blue balloons hung from the building’s atrium. The hotel’s Twitter account tweeted, "We are waiting for you Mr. President! Thank you!" as the inaugural motorcade prepared to pass.

But that display could violate the Trump Organization’s lease on the property. Because the federal government owns the Old Post Office building that has been turned into the luxury hotel, President Trump’s company is bound by a 60-year lease that also bars federal elected officials from benefitting from the building.

Much like the hotel, Mr. Trump’s ties to his international, family-run organization have raised concerns about ethical clashes and his presidency. While the president has placed his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., in charge of operations, he has not fully divested from the company, which has a global presence and slew of international deals many have decried as troubling. Others have cited his daughter Ivanka's close role to his administration, and his appointment of her husband to serve as a senior White House adviser, as ways his family could play an extensive role in the administration.

The Department of Justice ruled Friday that Jared Kushner’s appointment would not violate nepotism laws, allowing the appointment to stand.

But the protocol for separating Trump’s business and his presidency isn’t as clearly defined. While no laws prohibit the president from maintaining business ventures and investments during his term, defaulting to blind trusts to house assets has become a traditional approach for elected officials, and nearly every president since Lyndon Johnson has done so to avoid lingering ethical entanglements while in office.

Trump has moved to do the same, but many observers say the public nature of his real estate ventures do not coincide with the basic tenants of a blind trust.

"There a lot of reasons not to have a blind trust," Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, previously told The Christian Science Monitor. "I don't really see how blind this could be with a real estate empire."

The Trump Organization has also agreed to not enter into any new international deals, vowed to hire a compliance officer and ethics adviser to examine its domestic deals, and said it would avoid behavior that would exploit the president’s office.

"The Trump Organization has directed that no communications of the organization, including social media accounts, will reference or otherwise be tied to President-elect Trump's role as president of the United States or the office of the presidency," a company attorney wrote earlier this month in a briefing.

As for the new hotel in D.C., several possible ethical violations have been brought to light in just the first days of Trump’s presidency. Thus far, Trump International Hotel has hosted new cabinet appointees, big-name donors, and a prayer breakfast Friday preceding the inauguration. Each resulted in payments to the Trump Organization in either lodging or food fees.  

Some have called on the General Services Administration to either amend the lease or challenge Trump’s violations of the contract.

“That building is symbolic of the minefield that President-elect Trump has decided to walk through,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) of Maryland, who is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The New York Times. “We are going now from the hypothetical to reality – and I myself am not sure where it is going to lead.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.