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Pentagon's Interest In Leasing Trump Tower Space Presents Conflict

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Defense Department says it's planning to lease space in Trump Tower. That's the luxury high rise in Manhattan where President Trump and his family have lived and worked for years. DOD officials say the military needs to be in the building because the president is often there, but the arrangement is raising ethical concerns because Trump himself could profit from the deal. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: It's customary for military officials to travel with the president whenever he goes anywhere, and that's especially important these days, says Mark Jacobson, a former senior adviser to the Defense Department.

MARK JACOBSON: Since 9/11, it's taken on an increased sense of importance where you may need the president in communication for national emergency even if they're traveling at their home away from home.

ZARROLI: That means the Defense Department typically has to find office space near the president to house personnel and equipment.

JACOBSON: The president really can't be out of touch with the Pentagon or other national security officials. So you need redundant communication systems whether it's at Trump Tower in New York or at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

ZARROLI: So there's nothing unusual about the Pentagon looking for office space, but the president himself is co-owner of the building where the space is being leased. That in itself is not unprecedented. Vice President Joe Biden once rented space to the Secret Service agents protecting him, but the building Biden rented out was a small cottage in Delaware. In Trump's case, the space being least is in a high-price neighborhood in one of the world's most expensive cities.

Meredith McGehee is with Issue One, a nonprofit group that works to get money out of politics.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: It creates the appearance that President Trump through his business may directly benefit financially from charging the Department of Defense to do its job.

ZARROLI: The Defense Department says it's still negotiating the lease for the building. So it's not yet known how much it will be paying. But a single floor in the building can reportedly rent for as much as a million and a half dollars a year. McGehee says this is only the latest instance of the president appearing to profit from his new role.

MCGEHEE: So there is a growing list of interactions here between the president's businesses and the government, and that's troubling.

ZARROLI: McGehee says President Trump should give the military space for free, or the Defense Department should go to a neighboring building not owned by Trump. Otherwise, the United States risks looking like the corrupt foreign governments it's long looked down upon. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.