Washington DC in Trump era: Me, DC and the Donald


On January 20, 2017, Washington DC gained an infamous new resident. That was the day Donald Trump moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, heralding a louder, shoutier, more combative era of US politics. Much has been written about his policies, tweets and rants, but what about the impact on his adopted home? How has DC changed for a traveller since he became President? And where can you go to get a better understanding of the system that put him there?

THE WHITE HOUSE

Trump's new home is the obvious place to start and, in theory, at least, you should be able to book a tour. According to the White House's website (whitehouse.gov), foreign citizens can request one through their embassy in DC. The Australian Embassy's website (usa.embassy.gov.au), however, tells a different story: "… public tours for foreign nationals must be requested via an Embassy AND the U.S. Department of State. This is not currently possible as the U.S. Department of State has NOT facilitated Embassy-sponsored public tours of The White House since 2011."

What you're left with is the small but informative White House Visitor Centre. Admission is free and exhibits include a virtual tour of the White House, a short film featuring interviews with former presidents and more than 90 historical artefacts. Of course, there is also a gift shop, where you can buy a Santa-hatted Trump bobble doll and a bright-red "Make America Great Again" cap. See nps.gov

TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL

Trump opened this opulent new property in September 2016, two months before he won the election. Housed in the Old Post Office, a grand 10-storey Romanesque Revival building constructed in the late 1890s, it is less than a kilometre from the White House. 
Handy then, when he wants to pop out for a steak. Trump famously made his DC dining debut as President here, ordering a well-done $US54 steak with ketchup in the hotel's restaurant, BLT Prime.

Apart from a few token metal railings outside, there's hardly any visible security. No screenings. No pat-downs. No probing questions about your links with the Russians. A concierge tells me the only thing that changed after Trump's election was that the Secret Service closed the hotel's other street level entrances to better control foot traffic.

The property's soaring 60-metre-high glass-ceilinged lobby is genuinely spectacular. An enormous American flag hangs above a bar that sells wine "by the crystal spoon" and a $US100 cocktail that contains raw oysters and caviar. When I visit, the lobby's plush baby-blue velvet sofas and gilded chairs are mostly occupied by suited businessmen doing deals over $US10 lattes.

Not everyone is a fan though. Vanity Fair called it a "frightful dump" that is "riddled with nonsense" and there has been heated debate regarding the legalities of the deal. Trump is leasing the building from a government agency, which in effect means he is his own landlord. To circumvent this conflict of interest, Trump placed his business assets in a trust overseen by his sons. Predictably, the controversy has only heightened demand – the hotel made a $US1.97million profit in the first four months of 2017. See trumphotels.com

NATIONAL ARCHIVES

An interesting side effect of the intense media coverage of the 2016 presidential election was that it made me (and a lot of other people, I suspect) realise how little I understood about US politics. The best way to remedy this is with a visit to the National Archives, an appropriately imposing building near the National Mall that holds the country's three main formative documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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Entry is free but it is well worth paying the $US1.50 online reservation fee to book the daily guided tour at 9.45am (all other visits are self-guided).

All three documents are displayed in the grandly named Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. Most impressive is the Constitution, which in just four pages defines America's three branches of government: the Executive Branch (the President), the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court). To emphasise its importance, it is permanently flanked by two armed guards.
The Archives stores historically significant documents from all three branches, including census data, patents and all presidential communication. In the Public Vault exhibition there is a fascinating selection of letters, photos and videos, including Nixon's infamous one-sentence resignation letter and footage of JFK's assassination. 

How will Trump's legacy be represented? Through his tweets, of course. Our guide tells us that all of Trump's tweets (and all the replies to his tweets) are considered official presidential communication so will be permanently archived for future generations to enjoy. See archives.gov

UNITED STATES CAPITOL

Once you've got your head around the three branches of government, the next step is to see the legislative part in action. Given the security implications, I was surprised to discover there are public viewing galleries in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Even more unexpected is that they are easier to access as a foreign tourist than as a US citizen.

Both chambers are housed in the United States Capitol, the iconic whitewashed building with the "wedding cake" dome that sits on top of Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall. 

Guided tours are free and can be booked online in advance. After an insightful short film that stresses just how radical and risky democracy was when it was first introduced, you don a headset and join a crush of other groups being shown around the building's public spaces.

The Rotunda (the space under the dome) is particularly impressive. Lined with marble statues of deceased dignitaries, this cavernous void could house the Statue of Liberty and still have four storeys to spare. It is also where departed presidents lay in state. During the 2½ days JFK was here in 1963, three-quarters of a million people paid their respects.

Downstairs in the crypt, our guide points out the chisel marks in the huge sandstone columns supporting the dome. Ironically, America's "capital of freedom" was built using slave labour. The blocks were hand-hewn from a quarry 80 kilometres away and transported by horse and cart.

Despite the crowds, it is an excellent tour and during a private conversation afterwards our guide is surprisingly candid about the changes she has seen since Trump came to power. She says she has had people berate her because of her shaved head (she's openly gay) and recently had a couple refuse to join a tour because of a Muslim family wearing traditional dress. "The people have changed," she says, shaking her head. "It's like they have permission to say these things now."

After the tour, you can get a ticket for the public gallery in the Senate or the House by showing your passport at the relevant information desk. You will have to queue up again and endure another round of security checks but eventually you will be ushered in on the strict understanding you do not "protest or make any signs of approval". More difficult will be not falling asleep. Nothing happens during the 10 minutes I spend in the Senate and the handful of congressmen in the House seem more interested in their phones than the amendments to the bill being read out. House of Cards it is not. See visitthecapitol.gov

THE SUPREME COURT

I am guessing here, but I cannot imagine there are many countries that allow tourists inside their highest and most important courtroom, let alone for free. If you visit the Supreme Court Building, I would definitely recommend lining up for one of the regular 30-minute talks held inside the courtroom. The complex has other interesting exhibits and displays, but for me it is this opportunity to sit in the room where so many important legal rulings have been made that is most memorable. 

Although the court is part of the system of "checks and balances" for the other two branches of government, the President still gets to nominate the court's Chief Justice and eight associate judges, who then must be approved by the Senate.

One interesting revelation is that the Supreme Court is not the "highest court" in the land after all. That honour goes to the basketball court on the floor above. See supremecourt.gov

FIVE NON-POLITICAL THINGS TO DO IN DC

EAT 

In 2016, Washington became only the fourth US city to earn a dedicated Michelin Guide. The latest edition features 108 restaurants, 14 of which have stars. See guide.michelin.com

CHEER

Sports fans rejoice. DC has professional teams that play baseball, American football, soccer, basketball and ice hockey. 

LEARN

No other city can match DC's collection of Smithsonian museums, galleries and gardens. The best bit? They are all free. See si.edu

EXPLORE

Check out DC's eclectic range of neighbourhoods, from edgy, up-and-coming Shaw to historic, cobblestoned Georgetown.

BREATHE

Hike, bike or picnic in Rock Creek Park, one of America's largest urban parks. See nps.gov

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United, Brand USA and US Travel.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/washington-dc
washington.org
visittheusa.com.au

FLY

United flies to Washington DC via Los Angeles and San Francisco. Upgrade to Economy Plus for more leg room and quicker disembarkation. See united.com
 

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