For Donald Trump’s entire presidency, top congressional Democrats used every tool at their disposal to investigate the Washington hotel he leased from the federal government, issuing subpoenas, holding hearings and filing a lawsuit to try to bring the inner workings of Trump’s luxury property to light.
The efforts were framed as a defense of democracy itself. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the Trump administration’s refusal to provide documents “was not just disconcerting but an affront to the democratic institutions that the United States has been founded upon.” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the lawsuit, filed in federal court, was “in pursuit of justice to make sure our committee can fulfill its duty to the American people.”
None of it worked — a testament to Trump’s willingness to fight at every turn. But now, with the Biden administration in place, Democrats’ efforts to unearth and make public the information haven’t gone much better.
Biden’s team has steadfastly defended some of the protections the Trump administration put in place to conceal Trump’s financial interests. The Justice Department under Biden is appealing a lower court judgment in favor of the congressional Democrats in their suit, another move by the agency to defend Trump-era legal positions. Biden’s General Services Administration, which holds the lease for the Trump International hotel, has provided only a portion of the documents Congress is seeking and asked that none of them be disclosed publicly.
And as an investigation into Trump’s business dealings by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. advances, GSA staff has also declined to say whether the agency has been subpoenaed or contacted by investigators.
Government watchdogs say they are disappointed at the Biden administration’s unwillingness to hold Trump accountable for a unique — and in their view highly problematic — arrangement in which Trump’s administration managed a contract to a business entity he still owned and that his adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, oversaw.
Allowing Trump’s actions to go unscrutinized, advocates argue, would invite future presidents to repeat them.
“We think it’s really important to learn as much as possible about that contract and how it was administered, and whether there were special favors for Donald Trump because he was the president,” said Noah Bookbinder, president and chief executive of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Bookbinder pointed to a clause in the lease barring an “elected official” from receiving “any benefit” from the agreement, which GSA — under Trump — ruled was not a violation two months after he entered office.
“I think its pretty clear that a straight reading of the contract itself would say that he violated it,” Bookbinder said. He said GSA’s decision “seemed to have happened as a result of political influence.”
White House spokesman Andrew Bates declined to comment. Representatives of the Trump Organization, which recently put the hotel lease up for sale, did not respond. Trump has called the investigations into his business practices “witch hunts” that are driven by politics.
GSA officials declined to answer specific questions about the hotel, which Trump operates in the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion on a lease he signed in 2013, two years before he was a candidate for president. The agency issued a statement saying it “takes seriously our responsibility to manage federal buildings and space under the agency’s control and effectively administer our contracts.”
GSA’s statement said the agency will continue to respond to inquiries by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, chaired by DeFazio. But agency officials informed DeFazio and his Republican counterpart in a May 5 letter that Congress should not release any of the information to the public out of concerns for the privacy of the Trump Organization’s proprietary business information.
Those concerns should not outweigh the public interest in knowing whether the president was using the government to enrich himself, oversight advocates said.
“They don’t seem to appreciate that this is not a normal contract,” said former federal ethics official Walter M. Shaub Jr. of the Project on Government Oversight. “This is a contract that was administered at a time when the contract holder was the president of the United States and as a result any private interests need to be balanced on the side of the public interest of disclosure.”
At issue is a long list of documents held by GSA that could explain the agency’s thinking in allowing Trump to keep the lease after he became president, as well as financial documents that could show how he profited from the hotel while in the White House.
Other documents, some of which Democrats began requesting before Trump took office, include audits of the property and any potential requests for favoritism from Trump’s company or family. The company has denied making any such requests.
DeFazio and Republican leaders on the transportation committee now have some of those documents in hand, among them the hotel’s financial statements, audits, lease amendments and any formal correspondence between the agency and Trump’s company.
But in forwarding those documents to Congress, GSA asked that they not be disclosed publicly.
“These materials contain trade secrets or confidential commercial or financial information that is exempt from public release under the Freedom of Information Act or other applicable laws or regulations,” wrote Gianelle E. Rivera, GSA associate administrator. “Therefore, you must not copy, share, distribute, or otherwise disclose the information in any manner, without prior coordination and approval from GSA.”
Rivera, a Biden appointee, declined to provide any legal memos to Congress explaining why Trump could retain the lease while in office, arguing that “this category of materials constitutes confidential internal executive branch legal advice.”
DeFazio, along with Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and other Democrats on the committee, have for years pushed GSA to provide more documents, including at a hearing they held on the property last year.
DeFazio has not said what he plans to do with the information he receives from GSA, or whether he will honor the agency’s request to keep the material private. His spokeswoman Kerry Arndt said that the Biden administration overall has been “far more cooperative” than the Trump administration. She said the congressman and his staff “are still in the process of reviewing these records and expect GSA to provide other records as well. We are not likely to make any decisions on which records to release until we complete a full review of all responsive records.”
Biden has still not nominated a permanent chief for GSA. Former Obama official Katy Kale is serving as acting administrator and permanent deputy administrator.
It is not clear what interest the Manhattan district attorney, which is investigating an array of Trump’s business and tax dealings, has in the D.C. property. The New York City parks agency, which Vance has subpoenaed, signed contracts with Trump to operate a pair of ice rinks and a carousel in Central Park — which Trump no longer runs — and a golf course in the Bronx. The city is seeking to evict Trump from the Bronx course, citing his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, but the city has said Trump will not have to leave the course until this fall.
The city parks department confirmed the subpoena in response to a public records request from The Washington Post. The city declined to give more details about the subpoena, or to provide a copy of it, citing the ongoing investigation.
For years. Trump employed Barry Weisselberg, the son of Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, at one of the company’s park concessions, the Wollman Rink in Central Park, which the Trump Organization operated until this year. Barry Weisselberg testified in his divorce case that he earned $200,000 in annual salary, $40,000 yearly bonuses and was provided free company-owned apartments for his family.
Vance’s office declined to comment. New York Attorney General Letitia James has also been conducting an investigation of Trump’s business that her office said last month it now considers a criminal, rather than just civil, matter.
In Washington, Democrats from the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Maloney, remain in litigation with GSA and the Justice Department in pursuit of some of the same D.C. hotel documents that DeFazio has sought. In April, the Justice Department petitioned the D.C. Circuit Court to overturn a previous ruling in favor of the members of Congress.
“The committee has an ongoing, pressing need for these materials and is continuing to seek them from GSA,” said Maloney spokeswoman Jamitress Bowden.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the suit. During the campaign, Biden took Trump to task for not being more forthright with his financial information. “Release your tax returns or stop talking about corruption,” Biden told Trump during the final presidential debate, as they traded accusations of impropriety.
Biden has also vowed to have an independent Justice Department, one free of political influence. But Bookbinder said Biden administration officials should keep in mind that the Trump administration engaged in what he viewed as “corruption and anti-democratic abuses of a kind that we’ve never really seen before in this country.”
So far in the new administration, he sees a “trend of making decisions toward secrecy and away from accountability.”
“I hope that they don’t continue to go in that direction,” he said.
Shayna Jacobs contributed to this report.