WASHINGTON — A lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday by House Democrats alleges that the Trump administration is illegally withholding records about the profitability of the president’s downtown Washington hotel.
Filed by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, the lawsuit is seeking to force the General Services Administration to produce the Trump International Hotel’s financial statements, documentation they have requested multiple times as they try to determine the extent to which the hotel might be receiving payments from foreign officials or governments and how the president might be using the office for private gain.
They’re also seeking information about why the GSA, which leases the historic Old Post Office to the Trump Organization, appeared to reverse its interpretation of terms that prohibited an elected official from taking or sharing benefits from the hotel. The GSA’s contracting officer said in March that the Trump Organization was in full compliance because the president had resigned from any position with the firm and agreed to receive no direct earnings from the hotel.
The GSA inspector general is now reviewing the issue.
No Republicans have joined the Democrats’ request to the GSA, and government agencies often ignore information requests from opposition party lawmakers when they serve in the minority.
But Democrats say an obscure federal statute compels the administration to fulfill their request in this case, and note that the agency had provided those records to lawmakers during the Obama administration.
The so-called Seven Member Rule, based on a 1928 law, requires executive agencies to provide information requested by any seven members of the House Oversight Committee, or five from its Senate counterpart, regardless of party.
“We don’t want agencies to feel that when Congress asks for documents, that they can just say to hell with you. We have to stand up and do what we’re sworn to do,” Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
“All that stopped suddenly on January 20th of this year. There is one thing, and one thing only, that has changed in this case — President Trump is now sitting in the Oval Office,” Cummings said.
The 1928 law creating the Seven Member Rule repealed the requirement that executive agencies submit dozens of reports to Congress that had been determined to be obsolete, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. There have been only a handful of previous legal efforts to compel the release of information under the statute before, with one thrown out of court on the basis that lawmakers did not have jurisdiction to hear the claim.
But the Obama administration specifically cited the statute when it released the Trump Hotel records last year.
“The only defense the government is going to have is [we] can’t sue. And that argument has fallen flat,” said David Vladeck, the lawyer representing the Democrats in the case.
This year the attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia, both Democrats, filed a separate suit claiming that Trump is in violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which forbids officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments, citing in part the Trump International Hotel.
Before taking office, Trump promised to track and donate all profits from foreign government travel and commerce at his companies to the U.S. Treasury. His tax attorney said at a January news conference that the emoluments clause does not apply to "value for value" payments by guests at his hotels, but that he was nonetheless willing to donate profits from foreign payments so "it is the American people who will profit."
Records released in late 2016 showed that the Trump Organization projected that it would lose $2.1 million during its first four months of 2017. But documents inadvertently posted this summer showed that Trump’s Washington hotel posted a nearly $2 million profit, according to The Washington Post.
The president and first lady have visited the hotel often since taking office, most recently for dinner on Saturday night.