Historic Clock Tower At Trump's D.C. Hotel Remains Open Despite Shutdown

Jan 9, 2019
Originally published on January 9, 2019 6:48 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The partial government shutdown means that most museums and monuments in downtown Washington are closed. One that's open is at President Trump's hotel, a few blocks from the White House. It's a small historic site that is staffed by the National Park Service. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Tourists today were trickling in and out of the clock tower at the Trump Hotel. Sven Moeller is from New Jersey, visiting D.C. with friends from Germany.

SVEN MOELLER: It feels a little bit weird to be in the Trump Hotel (laughter). Yes, it does.

OVERBY: Trump's hotel is in what's called the Old Post Office Building, which was built in 1899 and belongs to the government. The hotel is there on a lease. The one part of the building not leased to Trump is the majestic clock tower. It's a separate historic site.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

OVERBY: It has 10 bells, replicas of a set in Westminster Abbey in London. Also, an observation deck, second only to the Washington Monument in height. The federal General Services Administration oversees the Old Post Office, and since 1983, long before the hotel arrived, GSA has paid the National Park Service for three rangers to staff the tower. So when the shutdown hit last month, here's what happened. GSA and the National Park Service both had to close the park rangers at the clock tower were sent home. But then GSA, even though it was still shut down, found money in a separate account that it could legally use to pay the rangers at the clocktower. GSA and the Park Service, also still closed, signed an agreement. GSA has said it was, quote, "unrelated to the facility's tenant."

BETTY MCCOLLUM: Boy, do I have a lot of questions.

OVERBY: This is Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, the incoming chair of a House subcommittee that oversees the National Park Service. McCollum said the agreement seems to benefit the president's business.

MCCOLLUM: The fact that it's a short-term agreement, the fact that there was a scramble to do it during a government shutdown just has all the makings of, you know, why did this happen? Is this legal? Is it ethical?

OVERBY: To reach the tower, you go through special door at the back of the hotel. Long corridors lead to the elevator. They have historical exhibits about the district and the Old Post Office Building - George Washington choosing the site of the capital city, Ivanka Trump inspecting blueprints for the hotel conversion. A tiny souvenir shop sells Trump chocolates, Trump hoodies, but no campaign items. Two watchdog groups have filed Freedom of Information requests for documents about the agreement. Noah Bookbinder is director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington or CREW.

NOAH BOOKBINDER: Were there communications between the White House and these agencies about whether this facility should be opened up? What was the legal basis? What was the thinking?

OVERBY: But Jeremy Stein, visiting the clock tower from Sydney, Australia, was just happy it was open.

JEREMY STEIN: You know, politics will sort itself out. But, you know, once you're at the top there, you get to enjoy a nice view. So you can't really complain about that.

OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.