In December 2016, the above-reproduced e-mail and Facebook forward circulated, asserting that the U.S. General Services Administration was "tallying" complaints about a potential conflict of interest by the incoming Trump administration about a property leased in Washington, D.C.
The claims that Trump's involvement with the property presented a conflict of interest were not new when the "action alert" began circulating. Multiple news outlets covered the story in late November 2016:
Among Donald Trump's many potential conflicts of interest, one stands out: His organization's lease with the federal government to redevelop and run a luxury hotel in the iconic Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.
How, critics wondered, could President Trump become his own landlord?
Now comes a new twist: Two federal procurement experts are arguing that not only will Trump have an ethics challenge — he will be in violation of the terms of the lease as soon as he takes the oath of office.
Steven L. Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at the George Washington University Law School, and Daniel I. Gordon, a senior advisor to GW's Government Procurement Law Program (and President Obama's first administrator for federal procurement policy) pointed out this week in Government Executive magazine that a provision in Trump's lease with the General Services Administration 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 ... To protect the integrity of the federal government's procurement process, GSA must end its lease arrangement with President-elect Trump now," the experts argue.
The GSA, which runs federal government real estate, declined to discuss the specifics when contacted by NBC News.
The forwarded material also claimed that citizens could contact the GSA to complain, that such attempts to lodge complaints were being "tallied" by the GSA, that a specific e-mail address ought to be used to do so, and that the claims were verified by a "receptionist" at the GSA. Although the author of some versions of the forward said that they called the GSA (instead of e-mailing), no number was provided.
In our attempts to verify the claim, we called all available primary GSA numbers. Each number offered a menu of number-based options, none of which involved a receptionist. The closest we came was a "customer service agent," who was unaware of the purported tally and did not appear to be taking one herself. Another aspect of the claim that suggested the action alert was misguided was that the provided e-mail address was strictly for members of the media, not citizens approaching the GSA. Although the address was an avenue of contact, it was an inappropriate one that would serve only to interfere with GSA-press relations.
The GSA rumor strongly resembled another Trump-related "action alert" involving the Justice Department and a separate purported tally. As we reported previously, no one was keeping a tally, and no action was taken due to the initiative. The GSA forward also contained "copy and paste, don't share" modifier (a distinctive hallmark of e-mail forward hoaxes), making its roots impossible to trace. Although such actions made people feel as if they were engaging in meaningful objection, they often caused headaches for those on the receiving end of these requests without having a measurable effect.
We contacted the GSA via telephone and their presumably inundated e-mail address for media inquiries, but have not yet received a response. However, the similarities between the Justice Department tally claim and the Trump Hotels plea were extensive enough that it appeared to possibly be the same rumor, but involving different entities.
It seems safe to say that if the GSA was accepting public comment on the Old Post Office building situation, it was not doing so through its press hotline.