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Questions Linger About President Trump's Washington, D.C., Hotel


President Trump's hotel in Washington just blocks from the White House is doing better than even the Trump Organization expected. But the questions continue about whether the president should be allowed to lease a federal building for that hotel. And new questions have emerged about the public's right to know about the hotel's business operations. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The Trump International Hotel has become the place to see and be seen in the nation's capital. The opulent setting is a magnet for foreign dignitaries, lobbyists, Republicans and conservative groups that want to rub shoulders with administration officials. It's not unusual for people of similar political stripes to gravitate towards the same setting.

DON FOX: But we've never had a situation like this where the president's name is there on the front of the building.

NORTHAM: That's Don Fox, a former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics.

FOX: A building, by the way, owned by the taxpayers. And the name is up there in big bold letters for anybody to see.

NORTHAM: And the profits from the drinks, the rooms, the parking go back to President Trump's organization. This bothers Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio from Oregon, in part because the hotel is located in a federal building.

PETER DEFAZIO: You know, it's unprecedented to have a president basically benefiting from a federal property lease. I mean, in effect, the president is both the landlord and the tenant in this case.

NORTHAM: Back in 2013, Trump signed a 60-year lease with the General Services Administration, the agency that owns the building where the hotel is located. The contract specifically states that no elected official may benefit from the lease. But the GSA has ruled that the lease is valid because the president moved his interest in the hotel into a revocable trust. Congressman DeFazio doesn't buy this argument, and he wants documents that show how the GSA made its case.

DEFAZIO: The acting head of the GSA defended these actions, which seem highly irregular and improper, refused to provide the documents on which the judgment was based.

NORTHAM: While the GSA hasn't released those documents, it did make public other information about the hotel, at least briefly. Last month, some of the Trump Hotel's financials appeared on the GSA website and were picked up by The Washington Post. The documents from February to April showed that despite high vacancy rates, the hotel made a profit of roughly $2 million thanks to room rates averaging $650 a night. Hours after those numbers went online, the GSA pulled them down, explaining they were confidential and had been posted inadvertently.

Jeffrey Stachewicz is a lawyer specializing in Freedom of Information requests. He says it's normal to keep this kind of information private.

JEFFREY STACHEWICZ: The aggregation of data that was put out by GSA would give competitors an advantage to compete against that hotel. And any proprietor would want to protect that.

NORTHAM: Stachewicz says what Trump's organization charges for rooms or drinks has nothing to do with his White House role and that his hotel should be treated the same as any other.

STACHEWICZ: It's almost that the public's demanding a disadvantage from him because of his position. And I don't know if that's fair - not in this instance, at least.

NORTHAM: Representative DeFazio agrees the detailed profit and loss statements from each category - bar, restaurant, rooms - don't need to be made public. But he says under the terms of the lease, the gross revenues must be disclosed.

DEFAZIO: The lease, it requires an annual payment. For profits over a certain level, it requires a percentage be shared with the United States Treasury, go to the taxpayers since it is a federally owned property.

NORTHAM: DeFazio may finally get what he wants. The Office of the Inspector General at the GSA says it's evaluating the management and administration of the Trump Hotel lease. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.