WASHINGTON – The House just launched its “impeachment inquiry,” but that’s a bit of a misnomer, because it implies questions must be asked to discover whether President Trump is guilty of wrongdoing.
In reality, his corruption is hidden in plain sight.
Consider two events that occurred simultaneously last Wednesday.
Trump, after acknowledging that he suspended military aid to Ukraine just before a phone call with the Ukrainian president in which he sought dirt on Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden, released a rough transcript of the call, as though it would exonerate him. Instead, it provided evidence Trump was proposing the trade he denies:
Ukrainian president: “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more (anti-tank missiles) from the United States for defense purposes.”
Trump: “I would like you to do us a favor though. ... I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine.”
Trump went on to ask for help undermining the Russia probe’s findings and digging up dirt on Biden and his son.
As the call notes were being released, a joint House committee opened a hearing on Trump’s lease of the Old Post Office, now the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump has violated the plain language of the lease (it says no U.S. elected official can be part of or benefit from the lease), and the plain language of the Constitution (it says no U.S. officeholder can accept payments from any “foreign state”). But the General Services Administration found a novel way to avoid declaring that Trump had violated both: It looked the other way.
How did the GSA, under Trump’s authority, declare his hotel in “full compliance” with its lease? In two hours of testimony by GSA Inspector General Carol F. Ochoa and Trump appointee Dan Mathews, the GSA’s commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, lawmakers learned that GSA:
Ignored the emoluments issue and related breach-of-lease issue.Disregarded existing legal precedent and instructions.Didn’t seek legal guidance from the Justice Department.Ignored the inspector general’s recommendation that it revisit the emoluments question.Doesn’t audit the property, instead taking the word of Trump’s accountants.Doesn’t keep track of payments by foreign governments.Won’t provide financial information about the hotel to Congress.Resolved the matter by deciding to remove conflict-of-interest restrictions on Trump (and future presidents) from future GSA leases.But, “We are receiving the proper amount of rent,” Mathews assured the lawmakers.
And how can he be sure the treasury isn’t owed more than the $3 million minimum under the lease?
“The tenant provides the audited financial statement,” Mathews explained.
Does the GSA audit any of its properties, which generate some $10 billion in revenue a year?
Mathews didn’t know.
What we do know is that Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, has booked the Trump International for a $30,000 holiday party. A conservative interest group booked the hotel for its gala this month reportedly costing tens of thousands of dollars, featuring speeches by Vice President Pence (at least his 12th speech at the hotel, according to the watchdog group CREW) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Twenty-five of the 32 officials to have served in Trump’s Cabinet visited the hotel, according to the website 1100 Pennsylvania. Lobbyists, political parties, candidates, PACs and foreign governments such as Saudi Arabia have spent millions of dollars at the hotel. Even campaign officials working for the new Ukrainian president – the one from whom Trump sought dirt on Biden – joined in the emoluments parade, spending $1,912 at the Trump hotel’s restaurant in April, the Center for Responsive Politics found.
Ochoa testified that the GSA “recognized that the president’s business interest” in the hotel “raised issues under the Constitution’s emoluments clauses.” The “unwillingness to address the constitutional issues,” in turn, affected the decision that Trump’s “business structure satisfied the terms and conditions of the lease.”
She reminded her wayward colleagues that “GSA, like all government agencies, has an obligation to uphold and enforce the Constitution.”
So does Congress.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.