So how did a centuries-old American institution end up at the center of the most heated political fight in Washington? It’s a little complicated, but we break down the mail-in ballot battle.
The unusual arrangement is already drawing ethical concerns that federal resources will be used for campaign events and that administration officials will violate the law by campaigning for the president on government property. And it’s not lost on Trump critics that the president’s flagship hotel, already a gathering spot for Republicans, will be conveniently located a short walk from the Mellon Auditorium.
“Picking a venue across the street from Trump’s D.C. hotel is no coincidence,” said Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee with jurisdiction over Trump’s Washington hotel. “The Republican National Committee has privately paid Donald Trump throughout his presidency and it’s sadly no surprise that their largest event would continue that shameful practice.”
More than 300 delegates will still gather in Charlotte, the official host city of the Republican National Convention, on the first day to officially nominate Trump for president. But most other in-person activities will be held in Washington, including some of the four nights of prime-time speeches, according to the two people. Trump abruptly canceled last month the events that had been moved to Jacksonville, Fla., as the state grapples with a surge in infections.
Social distancing guidelines in the nation’s capital currently limit gatherings to 50 people. Federal buildings are exempt from the restrictions but a person familiar with the plans said no large gatherings are expected. “There will be no large crowds or audiences at Mellon Auditorium,” the person said. The office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has sparred with Trump numerous times this year, did not respond to questions about the event.
The theme of the convention will be “honoring the great American story,” according to one of the people, and will include events that recognize Americans who have been helped by Trump’s accomplishments — similar to a State of the Union Address.
Each of the four nights, starting Aug. 24, is expected to include both in-person and virtual speakers, as well as live and taped appearances. In addition to speeches from the president and vice president, First Lady Melania Trump is expected to speak, as is Charlie Kirk, president and founder of the conservative student group Turning Point USA, according to a person familiar with his plans.
But the Republican National Convention staff, which works with the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, is still finalizing plans and officials have yet to announce the formal lineup.
Meanwhile, Trump said Thursday that he plans to deliver his acceptance speech on the fourth and final night of the convention from the White House, though some aides had pushed him to choose another location. “It’s a place that makes me feel good. It makes the country feel good,” Trump told the New York Post in an interview.
Trump had also considered the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous address, but said he would visit at a later date. “The White House would be much easier, from the standpoint of Secret Service and, you know, the movement of hundreds of people,” he told reporters Wednesday at the White House “I love Gettysburg, but … this is simpler. It would be magnificent. The White House is the White House.”
Democrats, and even some Republicans, are concerned federal employees who would be assisting Trump on the speech would be campaigning for the president, a violation of the Hatch Act.
Democrats asked for clarification on the issue from the Office of Special Counsel, the independent agency that probes possible Hatch Act violations. In a letter, the agency wrote that while Trump could deliver the speech from the White House, there could be Hatch Act implications “for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House.”
“It is completely inappropriate and unethical for a sitting president to use the White House as the backdrop for a political convention speech,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.,), a member of the House Oversight Committee. “The fact that we have to even comment on that demonstrates how morally bankrupt this president is.”
While the possibility of a Trump White House acceptance speech has received more attention recently, speaking at Gettysburg — where Trump delivered a campaign speech in 2016 — had raised similar ethical questions. Trump has not shied away from using national monuments for partisan speeches; his speech at Mount Rushmore over the July Fourth weekend was peppered with campaign rally lines.
For his acceptance speech, Pence is considering Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md., best known as the site of a major battle in the War of 1812, The Washington Post reported. His office didn’t respond to questions.
Republicans at one point had mused about moving most of the events to Trump’s, a magnet for staff, candidates and lawmakers in the Trump presidency, but it was not seriously considered, according to one of the people familiar with the plan. Before the pandemic, Republicans regularly held fundraising events at the hotel and Trump regularly stopped by for dinner.
Instead, they set their sights on the Mellon auditorium, which is owned by the U.S. government but available for public use. The RNC has rented the auditorium in the past, according to reports filed to the Federal Elections Commission.
The auditorium, which can seat 750 people, was the site of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s 2017 wedding, which Pence officiated and Trump attended.
Yet the Mellon auditorium’s proximity to the Trump hotel will still draw scrutiny to Trump’s financial arrangements.
Trump’s decision to maintain ownership of his sprawling real estate empire — despite his pledge to put his business aside while in the White House — has cast a shadow over his presidency. He faces numerous criminal investigations, lawsuits and congressional inquiries over possible legal violations as he refuses to turn over financial documents and tax returns to various authorities.
After winning the election, Trump ignored calls to fully separate from his namesake company, which comprises more than 500 businesses, after he was sworn into office. Instead, Trump asked his adult sons to run the Trump Organization while his personal holdings were placed in a trust from which he can draw money at any time without the public’s knowledge.
Trump has also faced accusations from Democrats that his push to secure $1.8 billion for a new FBI headquarters a block from his hotel — instead of moving the building to the suburbs as previously planned — is a convenient attempt to stop the sale of the government property to a possible competitor.
Trump’s Washington hotel brought in $40.5 million in 2019, according to his latest financial disclosure filed July 31. It remained open during the pandemic shutdown this spring, though business mostly evaporated.
Trump leases the building from the federal government despite language in the contract that says no “elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” The Trump Organization put the hotel on the market last year.
Alex Isenstadt and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.