President Trump is threatening to take away federal funding from the nation’s capital for harboring illegal immigrants and has promised to sign a bill permanently banning the heavily Democratic city from subsidizing abortions for low-income residents.
But perhaps Trump shares one interest with his newly adopted city of Washington, D.C.
When the president took one of his first excursions from the White House on Thursday, his armored limousine pulled up to a Philadelphia hotel sporting the District’s “Taxation Without Representation” license plates.
The slogan, first added to D.C. license plates 16 years ago, is probably the most visible sign of the fight of District residents to gain equal footing with Americans in the 50 states.
The District has a population of more than 672,000 — larger than that of Vermont or Wyoming — and its residents pay more in federal taxes than do those in 22 states. But D.C. residents have no voting representation in Congress and federal lawmakers on Capitol Hill retain ultimate authority over the District, able to overturn city laws or even to nullify results of ballot measures passed by local voters.
With each administration, residents watch to see if the occupant of the White House chooses the protest license plates, hoping they might gain a powerful ally in their quest for statehood.
They were first placed on the presidential limousine by Democrat Bill Clinton near the end of his second term. Republican George W. Bush removed them from “the Beast,” as the limo came to be known. Despite pledging to push for D.C. voting rights, Democrat Barack Obama declined to use the plates during his first term. The White House agreed only after he had been reelected and was petitioned by local leaders.
When the plates were installed in 2013, the White House said that after four years in the District, Obama sympathized with the cause for statehood and had seen “firsthand how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children and pay taxes, without having a vote in Congress.”
It remains unclear whether Trump assigns the same meaning to the plates.
In an interview with The Washington Post editorial board in March, Trump said he had “no position” on the issue of D.C. statehood.
“I think statehood is a tough thing for D.C. I think it’s a tough thing. I don’t have a position on it yet. I would form a position. But I think statehood is a tough thing for D.C.,” the then-candidate for the Republican nomination said. “I think it’s just something that I don’t think I’d be inclined to do. I’d like to study it. It’s not a question really. . . . I don’t see statehood for D.C.”
That’s also the position of Republican leaders in Congress.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the District by more than 2 to 1. That means that if the city became a state, the District would probably elect two Democratic senators and a Democratic member of the House, improving the odds for Democratic control of both chambers.
District voters have also given Trump little incentive for any favors. Just 4 percent of voters chose him over Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. It was among the worst showings for Trump nationally and the worst showing for a Republican in the District since D.C. residents won the right to vote for president in the 1960s.
On the same ballot in November, more than 7 in 10 D.C. voters backed a referendum measure to create a new state for D.C. residents. The plan calls for splitting residential areas of the capital into the 51st state and leaving a smaller downtown district that contains government buildings and monuments as a federal enclave.
It was unclear whether Obama even knew of the effort.
A couple weeks before the election, a video posted by the Kennedy Center of comedian Bill Murray touring the Oval Office showed him asking if the president has “a good license plate.”
Obama turned to an aide, who was off camera, and said: “That’s a good question, actually. Does the Beast have a license plate? What does it say? Is it top secret? Just a number?”
Last year, D.C. Council members introduced a bill to alter the plate to drive home their political message. They wanted to add a verb: “End Taxation Without Representation.”