Though the partial government shutdown has idled many National Park Service operations, a notable exception in the nation’s capital is the historically protected Old Post Office tower on Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
That tourist destination showcasing a vintage clock and spectacular 12th-floor views shares a building under a government lease to the Trump International Hotel, which opened after renovations in September 2016 and has been the subject of lawsuits over alleged presidential conflicts of interest.
So after the lapse in appropriations hit at midnight on Friday, Dec. 21, confusion ensued.
The self-guided tours with elevator access supervised by Park Service rangers came to a halt for a week. But they resumed on Saturday Dec. 29, as confirmed by Mike Litterst, chief spokesman and acting chief of public affairs for the Park Service’s National Capital Region.
“The National Park Service staffs the tour under an interagency agreement with the General Services Administration, which owns the building and provides funding for the NPS personnel,” he told Government Executive on Monday. Operational details, including dates of operation, are established by GSA.”
On Jan. 4, GSA—which has long come under fire by ethics critics for approving the Trump Organization’s plan for continued operation of the leased luxury hotel during the Trump presidency—released a statement saying, “The recent closing and reopening of the observation tower at GSA’s Old Post Office facility was unrelated to the facility's tenant.”
Since 1983, the statement said, GSA has been “required by law (P.L. 98-1) to enter into an agreement with the National Park Service for operating the observation tower. The law also authorizes GSA to pay NPS for this service from the Federal Buildings Fund. Balances within the Federal Buildings Fund remain available to operate federal facilities, as needed, until they are expended, notwithstanding a lapse in appropriations.”
It was several days into the shutdown before GSA officials realized that closing the Old Post Office’s observation tower was not appropriate.
But buried in the statement’s update was another twist. “In this process, it was discovered that the interagency agreement required by the 1983 law had expired earlier in the year,” the GSA statement said. “GSA and NPS subsequently renewed the interagency agreement, and NPS resumed operation of the tower as required by law.”
The line between the hotel and NPS-run clock tower can seem blurry. Access to the tower is not through the hotel’s logo-clad Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Nor is it through the 11th Street entrance used by patrons of the hotel. “Go to the Starbucks off 12th Street,” a hotel receptionist said when Government Executive visited on Monday.
In a courtyard at Federal Triangle across from the Internal Revenue Service headquarters, signs for the Park Service tower entrance gleam alongside co-equal signs for the coffee chain’s outlet and the Trump hotel proper.
Visitors then enter a hallway lined with framed prints of early District of Columbia sights, followed by a gift shop selling Trump Organization swag (no campaign slogans), near a desk worked by a private security guard.
Next, you navigate a hallway packed with exhibits on the history of the Old Post Office (built in a high-crime neighborhood from 1891-99). The elegant building was preserved, in part, due to efforts by Nancy Hanks, the first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (which was housed in the building before it was leased to the Trump organization).
Access to the elevator to the 9th floor landing—which offers a bird’s eye view of the Trump hotel’s courtyard and bars—includes an encounter, on different floors, with three Park Service rangers.
Then the visitor arrives at the open-windowed 12th floor tower, supervised by another private security guard. There one can examine the clock’s 19th-century machinery and behold four-sided views of downtown Washington D.C. On display are signs with keys identifying specific landmarks of a city that is home to a national government that is currently one-quarter shut down.
Critics of President Trump’s half-private, half-public arrangement at the hotel were unlikely to ignore what they see as irony in the hotel site’s special exception to an appropriations-lapsed Park Service.
The nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on Jan. 3 filed a Freedom of Information Act request with GSA seeking all documents “explaining the reopening of the Old Post Office Tower, funding for its operation, and communications between the GSA and the Trump Organization, the White House and the National Park service about the decision to reopen the tower.”
This decision, the group said in a statement, “conceivably advances the president’s personal economic interests at a time when over 800,000 of the federal workforce are not getting paid.”