Presidential candidates are forbidden to campaign on federal property.
But if your name is Donald Trump and the business that bears your name is spending $200 million to convert a federal landmark into a luxury hotel just blocks from the White House, there’s nothing to stop you from posting giant banners advertising the project with the colors, lettering and bombast you’ve adopted on the campaign trail.
A block-long banner with giant blue signs — the largest of which reads, “Coming 2016 . . . TRUMP . . . TRUMPHOTELDC.COM” — will remain along Pennsylvania Avenue NW about halfway between the White House and the Capitol, according to federal and District regulators.
The signs for Trump’s new hotel adorn the Old Post Office Pavilion, a striking 1890s-era structure with a tower and a well-worn food court where millions of tourists have stopped to eat lunch or buy postcards. The federal government owns the structure, but the Trump Organization has leased it and is in the midst of a massive renovation to convert it into a hotel with shops and restaurants.
D.C. officials welcomed the project enthusiastically when it was announced in 2013, but their excitement wavered when Trump, declaring himself a candidate for president last month, described undocumented immigrants who cross the border illegally as “rapists” and other criminals.
The comments prompted protests at the hotel site, with some local officials demanding that Trump pull out of the project altogether. Others questioned whether it’s appropriate for a presidential candidate to hang a banner bearing his name on a federally owned building.
“It is inappropriate to allow signage purportedly for commercial use to be used to advertise a candidate’s campaign,” wrote D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) in a July 10 letter to the head of the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
District regulators responded that there was nothing they could do.
The city forfeited its regulatory authority over the project in an agreement with the federal government in 2013. And the U.S. Department of General Services, which negotiated the Trump Organization’s 60-year lease of the building, declared this month that the agency considered the Trump banners temporary construction signs.
The signs have a rich blue background — a shade off those circulated by his campaign. They feature his last name, all in capital letters, much like his campaign bumper stickers. And then there’s the “2016,” the year of Trump’s expected commercial arrival in the nation’s capital, if not his hoped-for political one.
In a statement to The Washington Post on Monday, Ivanka Trump, the candidate’s daughter and the executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said the company “long ago obtained all necessary approvals” for the signs.
The Trump Organization won a competitive bid to renovate the Old Post Office Pavilion and took control of the property in May 2014, more than a year before Trump declared his candidacy.
Trump is not the first mogul whose business brand overlapped his political one. Steve Forbes, the publishing executive who twice sought the Republican presidential nomination, may have benefited from the familiarity of a surname shared by a popular magazine.
In Trump’s case, that branding advantage seems unfair to some — especially in such a venerated location in downtown Washington. The Federal Election Commission has addressed the line repeatedly over the years between wealthy candidates’ commercial brands and their election materials. Trump’s sign seems perfectly legal, said Kenneth A. Gross, a former associate general counsel of the FEC.
“Merely putting a sign with the name of a candidate when the candidate happens to be running a construction project on the site does not invoke any campaign laws,” Gross said. “It is permissible. If it said, ‘Vote for Trump,’ that would be another matter.”
Nonetheless, the political backlash may not be over. After Trump made disparaging remarks about immigrants, workers on the site said the project was relying on immigrants, including some who had arrived in the country illegally.
And in addition to protests and calls for Trump’s name to be removed from the project, two restaurateurs announced that they would back out of the project — Spanish American celebrity chef José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian of Iron Chef. Zakarian, according to a Trump spokeswoman, had put down a nonrefundable deposit of more than $490,000.
The Trump Organization has put up $42 million for the hotel.
Ivanka Trump, who has led much of the development of the D.C. location, has tried to keep the project above the political fray.
“Construction at Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C., is well underway and ahead of schedule,” Ivanka Trump said Monday. “When the redevelopment is completed, this will be the finest luxury hotel in the country.”