Trump set to return to the city he loves to hate and hates to love

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Big League Dreams Las Vegas on January 27, 2024.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at Big League Dreams Las Vegas on January 27, 2024. David Becker/Getty Images/FileCNN — 

Donald Trump is coming back to the place he hated to call home.

The former president is due in the nation’s capital on Wednesday to address the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and will perhaps be collecting impressions for his next unflattering depiction of the city in a future campaign speech.

Washington – with its gun crime and carjackings – has taken a starring role in the GOP front-runner’s 2024 stump speech as he tries to create a dystopian picture of a nation and its citadel trapped in the grip of lawlessness that requires a strongman’s attention.

“You can’t walk down the streets of these cities these days without being shot or mugged or beat up or pushed into a subway train,” Trump said in a dark speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, on January 20. “We will take over the horribly run capital of our nation in Washington, DC, and clean it up, renovate it, rebuild it. It’ll be a capital like no other.”

Trump went on: “Our capital is a disgrace, I was there for one of these fake trials the other day a couple of weeks ago, and I’m driving down a major thoroughfare … and there was so much garbage that we were literally driving over cartons and boxes and cans of beer.” The former president was exaggerating the city’s current state, even though it does have its problems, especially since the pandemic.

Trump has returned several times since his disgraced departure from the District as president in January 2021, when the US Capitol still bore the scars of his supporters’ mob invasion.

He’s not been much missed in this overwhelmingly Democratic bastion. And the feeling is mutual. The ex-president has never hidden his disgust for the city where he slept – or tweeted late into the night – for parts of four years when he was the commander in chief.

No modern president has been as visceral about Washington as Trump – and his contempt offers insight into his politics and his character. The ex-president’s core political project is dedicated to metaphorically tearing down a city that exists to provide governance. It’s the foundation of what ex-Trump political guru Steve Bannon calls the administrative state. If he’s elected to a second term, Trump has pledged to gut the professional civil service. Washington, in the eyes of Trump and his supporters, is the epicenter of a corrupt Deep State that is dedicated to destroying the “Make America Great Again” movement and is a playground for political and media elites.

Washington’s marbled monuments have also been the been the backdrop for some of the most notorious moments of Trump’s political career and have highlighted his autocratic leanings. In his first hours as president, Trump’s false claims about the size of his inauguration crowd, sparsely stretched between the Capitol and the obelisk of the Washington Monument, were the first indication of how he’d use the White House to defile truth. Trump once took part in a Fox News interview inside the Lincoln Memorial, raising questions about his government’s easing of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions for the event. One of the darkest moments of his presidency came when Trump corralled members of his Cabinet and marched across Lafayette Square, shortly after it was cleared of racial injustice protesters, to St. John’s Church, where presidents-elect often worship before their inaugurations. In a bizarre photo-op, he then held up a Bible. A few days later, Washington’s Democratic leadership named a street plaza for the large yellow “Black Lives Matter” letters painted on 16th Street during the protests against the police killing of George Floyd. The installation in front of the White House is now one of the most visible, physical responses to Trump’s time in the Oval Office.

Washington is still trying to forget the most chilling moment in modern presidential history, when Trump held a massive rally on the Ellipse on January 6, 2021, and told his crowd to “fight like hell” for their country before the mob ransacked the Capitol building in an attempt to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

There have sometimes been suggestive racial overtones in Trump’s critique of Washington. In 2020, he tweeted that people protesting the death of Floyd would be met by “vicious dogs” if they breached the White House fence. For some Americans, this recalled the imagery of the Civil Rights movement and the suppression of protests against segregation in the Deep South. Washington’s Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, who frequently clashed with Trump, tweeted in response, “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…”

Washington’s status as a Democratic city with a substantial minority population also appears to have been on Trump’s mind recently, given his pending trial for election subversion in federal court there. It’s fueled his claims that it will be impossible for him to get “even close to a fair trial.” He wrote on Truth Social last year, “There are many reasons for this, but just one is that I am calling for a federal takeover of this filthy and crime ridden embarrassment to our nation.” Hundreds of January 6 rioters have been tried and convicted in Washington ahead of Trump’s trial. But acceptance of his argument – that he can’t be fairly tried in the city for political reasons – would unravel the justice system. If politicians can choose their juries and judges in politically favorable jurisdictions, corruption would run rampant. One reason why the trial is set for Washington is it’s the city where the alleged offense – a crime against democracy – took place.

Many presidents have hated Washington – but not like Trump

Many previous presidents, especially Republicans, have long used Washington as a metaphor for all that is wrong with America. The city is an easy target in many federal campaigns, from both parties. And for all their efforts to get to the city as president, many commanders in chief often seem desperate to leave whenever they can. Franklin Roosevelt spent long periods at Warm Springs in Georgia, where he’d ease lifelong physical repercussions from polio and at his home at Hyde Park, New York. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were always keen to swap the White House for their Texas ranches.

Trump made little effort to embrace the town, getting out to play golf at his course in Virginia or heading to his properties in Florida and New Jersey. Biden spends most weekends in his beloved Delaware. But Barack Obama bucked the trend, becoming the rare president to set up home in the capital after his tenure ended instead of returning to his previous adopted hometown, Chicago.

Some presidents have tried to treat DC like home while in office. Theodore Roosevelt went rock climbing in Rock Creek Park, and decades later, Ronald Reagan saddled up to burnish his cowboy persona and went horse riding there. Abraham Lincoln used to escape the swampy summers to a cottage in Northwest DC where he’d also visit with wounded Civil War soldiers. And of course, he went to the theater at least once, with tragic results. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who served as naval officers, loved to take the presidential yacht, the USS Sequoia, down the Potomac River. The vessel was decommissioned by Jimmy Carter, a former submariner who was perhaps more comfortable beneath the waves.

Nixon’s most lasting impact on Washington, however, was that he made the Watergate office complex famous after a raid by Republican operatives on the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee spawned a scandal that toppled him. In recent years, some Democratic presidents have adopted the city’s call for political self-determination, adding the slogan “No Taxation without Representation” to the license tags of the presidential limousine. The slogan was not, however, in evidence on the presidential ride Biden used in Florida on Tuesday, when – in a show of aviation one-up-man-ship – Air Force One taxied past Trump’s private Boeing in West Palm Beach.

Presidents have also often ventured out of the White House for refreshment. Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding are all said to have patronized Old Ebbitt Grill, which is open still just around the corner. During the Clinton and Obama administrations it was not unusual to see the presidential motorcade idling outside some of the city’s top restaurants in Georgetown and downtown. Trump, however, rarely went anywhere to socialize apart from his former hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, whose bars and restaurants became a hot spot for administration officials and Trump-world figures like Rudy Giuliani and a must-see for MAGA tourists in the capital.

What Trump does love about Washington

Trump may demonize the current conditions in Washington. But as a builder, he can’t help but admire its splendid architecture.

In December 2020, he issued an executive order praising the capital’s unique real estate, noting that “President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson consciously modeled the most important buildings in Washington, D.C., on the classical architecture of ancient Athens and Rome.” The order added, with some irony given subsequent events, that the founders “sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.”

The order, a draft of which was titled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” outlawed the use of modernist architecture in “ugly” and “uninspiring buildings” in the government in the future.

A month later, when Trump left Washington as president for the last time, many of those classical buildings that he so admired, including the White House, were locked behind high iron fences to protect them from the dangerous political forces he helped to incite.

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