House Democrats Renew Push for Records in Emoluments Fight

This Jan. 30, 2018, photo shows the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – On the heels of a legal victory that gave Democrats the green light to gather documents from businesses owned by President Donald Trump, lawmakers made new demands Thursday for records they say will help shed light on any constitutional issues surrounding the president’s profits from his hotel in Washington, D.C.

The Trump International Hotel, which sits in the federally controlled Old Post Office Building that is currently leased to the Trump Organization, has become a hot spot for foreign officials looking to rub elbows with the president’s administration.

Since his inauguration, 24 foreign governments have spent money at Trump enterprises. Seventeen foreign officials from 13 nations have booked rooms at the president’s hotel near the White House, including Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom’s Brexit Party.

For the last three years, the Kuwaiti Embassy held its national day of celebration at the hotel, paying at least $16,000 to do so. During the first year of Trump’s presidency, the hotel charged the Secret Service over $200,000 for their stay, NBC News reported Thursday.

The Constitution’s so-called emoluments clauses prohibit the president from receiving gifts from foreign or state governments or officials while in office without congressional consent. State visits and other activities that generate profit for the hotel could be a violation of that clause.

But whether they are or not remains to be seen because Congress has been stonewalled by the agency holding many pertinent records, Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said during a congressional hearing Thursday.

The Government Services Administration, which oversees the lease for the hotel, has “never had a problem before” turning over financial records, Raskin told Robert Borden, chief of staff for the agency.

“Yet now there is a problem. Is it a problem at the GSA or is it a problem at the White House? Is it a problem with Trump as president or Trump the businessman?” Raskin asked. “A district court upheld the committee’s power to obtain documents and if this body has the power to impeach the president – which we do – then we have the power to get any information we need to investigate the president.”

The hearing comes two days after a federal judge ruled out further discovery delay in litigation in an emoluments lawsuit brought by good-government groups and legislators against the president.

Borden told Raskin and other members of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations that there were “no documents the GSA was unwilling to talk about producing to the committee.”

“With regard to financial documents, there’s a confidentiality provision which says some of these documents are not to be produced outside of the GSA,” Borden said.

Though apologetic for his inability to provide specific answers about when or if the records would be released, Borden’s responses did little to assuage Democrats – or Republicans – on the committee.

In a rare show of unity, Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, sternly warned Borden and others.

“If anyone is going to say the reason we don’t have these documents today is because of a deliberative process, I would urge you strongly not to go there. You’ll find the full force of Republicans and Democrats on that. If you think the lack of giving documents to the committee is serving a greater purpose, I assure you, it is not,” Meadows said.

Jill Tyson, assistant director for the office of congressional affairs at the FBI, also took heat from lawmakers.

Since July 2017, the FBI has failed to produce documents requested by Congress related to the abrupt decision by the agency to forgo long-standing plans to relocate its headquarters from D.C. to nearby suburbs.

Democrats have expressed concern Trump may have improperly intervened in the FBI’s decision making out of his own self-interest.

Moving FBI headquarters, now just blocks from Trump International Hotel, could free up the market to competitors looking to square off against the president’s property.

The FBI has produced 1,300 pages of documents related to the relocation plan but much of it is heavily redacted.

Lawmakers also expressed frustration with the lack of transparency at the Office of Personnel Management.

On Wednesday, the House voted to stop the Trump administration from furloughing 150 employees if Congress failed to support OPM’s plan to merge itself with GSA.

The administration’s move, according to Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was a strong-arm technique to accomplish a goal desired by the Trump administration: shrink government regardless of impact.

Stephen Billy, deputy chief of staff at OPM, told lawmakers Thursday the legal analysis of a possible merger between OPM and GSA was still ongoing but he was unable to confirm when it began.

“Was there just an assumption it would be lawful? OPM made a significant decision to dissolve itself without obtaining any formal [legal] opinion…The administration came up with a plan but never took care to vet it or assess its lawfulness,” Raskin said.

To date, OPM has only provided 525 pages of documents related to the decision. But almost none of those records are responsive to the questions posed by Congress, Republican Representative Jody Hice of Georgia noted.

“It’s clear there’s a stall here. It does not take multiple people weeks to gather 500 pages for Congress. Particularly when those pages are filled with redactions to questions that have no reason to be redacted. What is the legal basis for the redactions?” Hice asked.

OPM was unable to answer.

Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the agencies are complicit in a “stunning lack of cooperation that hamper multiple investigations.”

“This is a pattern of obstruction and it literally takes away power from Congress. These are documents we would have received in previous administrations, many without redactions and without a fight,” Cummings said, before noting Trump’s vow to fight any and all subpoenas directed at his administration. “Come on now. We have a duty to conduct oversight on decisions made by the executive branch. Especially on leases taxpayers pay for.”

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