Is the Trump Family Using the White House to Get Richer? Democrats Are Suing to Find Out

Trump Hotel Washington DC
A man holds an American flag outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on October 18. Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are accusing the president of withholding documents and illegally profiting from his hotel. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Stepping up their attempts to investigate whether Donald Trump is using the presidency to enrich himself, Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will announce Thursday the filing of a lawsuit against his administration. The committee members accuse the administration of illegally withholding documents related to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Related: Donald Trump's own ethics chief "deeply concerned" about administration's leaders

Despite a total absence of support from Republicans, Democrats claim they have the legal right to receive the documents even as a minority under a 1928 statute, known as the Seven Member Rule, which gives any seven members of Congress the right to obtain information from the executive branch. The rule has been invoked by both Democrats and Republicans in the past and was complied with by President Barack Obama's administration.

Trump has been besieged with ethics concerns since the day of his election victory almost a year ago. But arguably none have been as problematic as the hotel just three blocks from the White House on the site of a historic post office. The Trump Organization signed a 60-year lease on the property from the General Services Administration in 2013 but as president he now oversees the GSA, making him effectively both landlord and tenant.

The lease specifically states that no "elected official of the Government of the United States...shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom."

"Under the previous administration, this exact same agency—GSA—explicitly recognized our authority under this exact same statute—the Seven Member statute—and produced documents on this exact same issue—the Trump Hotel," Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the committee, will say at a press conference Thursday, according to remarks shared with Newsweek. "But all that stopped on January 20. There is one thing, and one thing only, that has changed in this case—President Trump is now sitting in the Oval Office."

Despite concerns from ethics watchdogs, the GSA, under an acting administrator appointed by Trump just days after his inauguration, ruled in March that the Trump Organization was in full compliance with the lease.

It is not only the issue of the lease that has Democrats seeking to obtain documents on the hotel. They are also keen to investigate whether the hotel is allowing Trump to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself and if he is violating the emoluments clause barring the receipt of payments and gifts from foreign governments. The lawsuit accused Trump of failing to adequately divest his ownership interest in the company when becoming president.

"This hotel is not just a building with Donald Trump's name on it," Cummings said. "It is a glaring symbol of the Trump Administration's lack of accountability and a daily reminder of the refusal by Republicans in Congress to do their job. This may be standard operating procedure in foreign countries—but not here. Not in America."

The Trump Organization had projected that it would lose $2.1 million during the first four months of 2017, but, instead, reports said that it turned a $1.97 million profit. The hotel has been used by members of Trump's Cabinet, a number of Republicans and other groups holding meetings in Washington. It was also revealed in June that the hotel had received $270,000 from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Democrats accuse Republicans of failing to provide adequate oversight of the president.

"We regret that we have to go to court to obtain these basic documents, which are clearly within our Committee's jurisdiction," Cummings said. "We would not be here today if [House Oversight and Government reform committee] Chairman [Trey] Gowdy and his Republican colleagues would do their jobs. In my opinion, House Republicans are aiding and abetting President Trump's ongoing abuses. Republicans are essentially walling off President Trump from credible congressional oversight."

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at a meeting with business leaders on tax reform at the White House, on October 31. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., has been used by members of Trump’s Cabinet, a number of Republicans and other groups holding meetings in Washington. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The fact that the matter will now go before the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., is yet another sign of the current polarized political environment in Washington, said Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University who has authored a book on executive privilege. The Trump administration now has 60 days to file a response, but whatever the outcome, Rozell believes that the case could have far-reaching consequences.

"That poses potential dangers for both sides because a legal decision will create a precedent, and that precedent either can open the floodgates for more such legislative inquiries or it can hamper the future ability of very serious inquiries and demands for information," he told Newsweek Thursday.

Previous cases on the so-called seven-member rule have received a mixed response from the courts. And the Democrats' case, said Rozell, was far from straightforward.

"I think it's shaky, quite frankly," he said. "Congress can make any rule it wants demanding that the executive branch do this or that, but the executive branch has its own powers and responsibilities, and it does not have to defer to every demand that Congress makes upon it."