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89-Year Old Law May Force Trump's Feet to the Fire

November 14, 2017

Many have looked to the U.S. Constitution to hold President Donald Trump accountable for his many illegal acts as President. A just-filed lawsuit based on a federal law passed back in 1928 may instead provide a much better way.

The lawsuit, filed on November 2, 2017, by Congressional Democrats in the House Oversight Committee, calls into use what is known as the “Seven Member” statute.

As background to the current case, note that ever since Donald Trump was sworn in as President, many have demanded he must live up to what is known as the ‘emoluments’ clause of the U.S. Constitution, which in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of that document “restricts members of the government from receiving gifts, emoluments, offices…” and more without the consent of the United States Congress. The idea behind the clause when written was to avoid conflicts of interest as those government representatives act on behalf of the people of the United States.

Most Presidents in the past have dealt with this by putting any assets such as property, stocks, and other valuable holdings in a blind trust. They have no control over their assets while in power and have their finances set up so they cannot benefit personally from any of their Presidential actions. Donald Trump as well as his family members scattered around the White House have not done that at all.

Old Post Office in Washington DC

Old Post Office in Washington DC leased to Trump and converted to a hotel. Photo: CC 2.0

One big place where many argue there is a clear conflict of interest is in an extremely important asset in the Trump Empire, the Trump International Hotel located in the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C., just a short distance from the White House. Trump acquired the rights to the property long before even being nominated President. The hotel was complete shortly before the 2016 election. Since it’s opening, many of Trump’s detractors have accused Trump of having foreign government representatives stay at that hotel, with Trump in turn being able to make significant profits off those governments because of their stays.

The same arguments have been made about Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, where membership fees have been jacked up since Trump assumed his White House role. It is also where Trump holds state meetings with foreign dignitaries. Once again the fees of those dignitaries, their support staff and security personnel all have profits tacked on to them. The Trump organization and Donald himself all profit handsomely from those arrangements.

Trump Tower in New York also has foreign dignitaries of all kinds -- governmental, corporate, and financial. They too pay their rents, profits are pulled in, and the President once again makes money from them by being President.

To hold Trump accountable for the obvious conflict-of-interests here unfortunately requires the concurrence of the majority Republican party in Congress. They are not going to mess with what they still consider a very good deal in a President who doesn’t ask them too many questions, so they in turn have apparently made the Faustian bargain to leave him alone about these conflicts of interest and potential violations of the Constitution.

The difference between Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, on the one hand, and the Trump International Hotel on the other hand, is that the Hotel is built inside and on property owned by the federal government. The Hotel leases the use of that property from the General Services Administration (GSA), who in turn acts as a landlord of sorts for the hotel.

Under the terms of that lease, one Trump himself signed with the GSA before becoming President, prohibits any federal officials from benefitting from having the lease with the GSA. After Trump became President, the GSA made its own determination that Trump’s presidency did not conflict with the terms of the lease, but never told anyone how.

Unlike in the case of the other potential conflicts, the Trump International Hotel and the GSA lease can be investigated through a different channel. Because the GSA actions fall under the jurisdiction of the House Oversight Committee, that committee – and its rules – can be used to dig into what’s happening with the Hotel/GSA arrangement. That committee has the right to ask the GSA for:

  • Information about the profitability of the hotel
  • How much money received by the hotel comes from foreign governments
  • How the GSA decided it was reasonable for Donald Trump to continue to lease the hotel, even after he became President

All these records are required to exist because, under the terms of the lease, the hotel’s management, as a lessee, must deliver this financial data to the General Services Administration on a periodic basis.

To do this does require an Act of Congress to make it happen, but fortunately that Act already exists. Under what is known as the “Seven Member” statute, a law passed at a time where high corruption and crime existed in the U.S., if any seven members of the oversight committee request documents from a federal agency, those documents must be turned over. The law only applies to this one committee, and it has been upheld in the courts and used multiple times since then. The idea was to encourage transparency in operations by Federal Agencies. The relatively small number of committee members required to force the transparency action was deliberate, so that partisan politics to block disclosure was not possible.

On November 2, 17 Democrats on the House Oversight Committee – 10 more than are required by the “Seven Member Rule” – filed a legal action using that 1928 law. They said they have repeatedly asked the GSA for information on the Trump Hotel and the GSA has refused to respond. They are now saying the GSA is acting in direct violation of the law.

As Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the one who is leading the legal charge in this matter, said about the case, “Under the previous administration, this exact same agency – GSA – explicitly recognized our authority under this exact same statute – the Seven Member statute – and all produced documents on this exact same issue – the Trump Hotel. But all that stopped on January 20.” He went on to underline his point even stronger, saying that, “There is one thing, and one thing only, that has changed in this case – President Trump is now sitting in the Oval Office.”

The case seems clear and one that the White House will have perhaps its hardest time to date fighting off. It could be that this 89-year-old law may be the one finally to force some sanity – and Constitutional rigor – to the way the White House has to deal with the American people.