District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s cellphone rang earlier this week from an unfamiliar number: It was the White House calling to say President Donald Trump wanted to talk.
The president congratulated Washington's mayor on $876 million in federal coronavirus relief going to the Washington-area Metro system — money that was welcome but not under the mayor's jurisdiction, instead going to a regional transportation authority.
Bowser used the moment to remind Trump that the District — a city of 700,000 people that includes more than 150,000 federal workers— got $700 million less in coronavirus relief money than each of the 50 states because it was classified as a territory at Senate Republicans' insistence in the first round of federal relief passed by Congress.
As a candidate, Trump spoke warmly of the nation’s capital and said he wanted “whatever is best” for its residents. But over the course of his more than three years in office a disconnect between the president and District of Columbia has emerged. The public differences have only become more stark during the pandemic.
Full coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and how it impacts you
“It is very important that the District is made whole, and that the District gets what it’s owed,” Bowser said this week after her talk with Trump.
Aides to the mayor said Trump told Bowser her concerns were on his radar, but he made no commitments. Similarly, Trump told her the issue would be addressed when she initially complained about the matter during a White House conference call with governors in late March.
The White House declined to comment.
The pace of reopening after the coronavirus threat shut down activity around the nation also has been a point of contention between Washington and the White House.
While the Trump administration has been pushing state and local governments to speed up reopening, Bowser insisted until recently that local infection numbers didn’t justify any relaxation of her stay-home order.
The District is easing its stay-at-home order next week, one of the last jurisdictions to begin reopening. But city and public health officials warn that the nation’s capital will likely take months to fully come back to life.
City officials said it remains unclear if students will be able to return to a physical classrooms in the fall. The guarded approach stands in sharp contrast with comments from Trump, who on Friday demanded that state and local leaders allow houses of worship to reopen “right now.”
Hours earlier, Bowser stressed it was crucial for residents to remain vigilant. Houses of worship will be allowed to hold gatherings of up to 10 people in the District's first phase of the reopening.
And just after Trump spoke, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said D.C., along with Chicago and Los Angeles, had experienced a long plateau in infections that administration officials were closely monitoring.
The capital city’s coronavirus death rate is higher than all but four states: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“There is a disconnect,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting delegate in the U.S. House. “The White House is looking at the economy and the money, and the mayor is looking at the science first.”
Bowser acknowledges the different approaches, but plays down any conflict with the Oval Office.
She stresses that the city's reopening plan is based in part on White House task force guidelines and Washington has consulted with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert. The mayor added that she's been in contact with administration officials, as have other city representatives.
“We want everything open," Bowser said. "And the way to get everything open is to have a measured and phased approach.”
It wasn't too long ago that Trump courted city leaders.
In 2014, as his company was developing a hotel at the historic Old Post Office building leased from the federal government, Trump donated $5,000 to Bowser’s DC Proud Inaugural Committee. Two of Trump’s children — Ivanka and Eric — gave $2,000 each to the mayor’s campaign after she defeated the city’s incumbent mayor in the primary that year.
After emerging as the GOP frontrunner in 2016, Trump said in a “Meet the Press” interview that he’d “certainly look at” a decades-long push by District leaders to gain statehood.
“I would like to do whatever is good for the District of Columbia because I love the people,” Trump said.
But earlier this month, Trump told the New York Post, “D.C. will never be a state.”
“Why? So we can have two more Democratic — Democrat senators and five more congressmen?” added Trump, alluding to the city’s history of voting overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Neither has Trump embraced life in Washington like some of his recent predecessors.
Barack and Michelle Obama enjoyed a string of date nights at city restaurants. Bill Clinton jogged on the National Mall. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter won over some residents by enrolling their daughter, Amy, at a D.C. public school.
Trump’s outings in the area have centered on dinners at his own hotel and trips to his golf club in Northern Virginia. His infrequent forays elsewhere in the District have courted controversy.
Earlier this month, he decided to hold a Fox News virtual town hall at the Lincoln Memorial.While other presidents have held events on the steps of the memorial, Trump got a federal waiver to sit at the marbled feet of the sixteenth president, generating some grumbling.
In October, Trump attended a World Series game at the Washington Nationals' stadium. When he appeared on ballpark video screens, the D.C. crowd showered him with boos.
Democrats and District activists also complain that the Trump administration has yet to reimburse the city for more than $7 million in security costs related to the 2017 inauguration and additional costs for Trump’s bulked-up Fourth of July celebration in Washington.
“Whether it’s not paying for the inauguration or his Fourth of July event to shorting D.C. residents in coronavirus relief, he’s been clear in his attitude,” said Bo Shuff, executive director of the statehood advocacy group DC Vote. “He just doesn’t care about the people of D.C.”
Madhani reported from Chicago.