Trump billboard draws scrutiny

Trump billboard draws scrutiny
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE’s “Coming 2016” sign in front of his new hotel project just blocks from the White House in downtown D.C. is drawing scrutiny.

Some are saying the sign, which is standing on government property that Trump is leasing for his future luxury hotel, too closely resembles the signs he’s using in his White House campaign.

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D.C Councilman Charles Allen sent a letter earlier this summer to the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) asking that it look into the billboard, which he argued is “similar in its color scheme, font and lettering” to Trump’s campaign signs.

Allen said he acted after receiving numerous complaints from constituents.

The dark blue billboard with white lettering stands in front of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Small letters that read “Coming 2016” hang over the the word “TRUMP.”

The Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits corporations from contributing anything of value to federal campaigns, but attorneys who specialize in election law say the Trump sign is not likely to fall under the rules because it went up in 2014, before Trump became an official presidential candidate.

“In this instance because the billboard went up long before Mr. Trump became a candidate, it appears the corporation did so in the normal course of doing business, not to influence the campaign,” said Paul Ryan, senior counsel with The Campaign Legal Center. 

But Ryan said a future sign could present an issue.

“Going forward, he and his business entities need to be very careful that they don’t spend any corporate funds to help his campaign,” he said.

Kenneth Gross, a D.C.-based attorney with the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said he doesn’t see an issue with the signs.

“There are FEC rules that would kick in for electronic media within certain timeframes of an election, but not for putting signs on a business trumpeting his brand, if you will,” he said. “Pun intended, I guess.” 

Allen has not personally filed any complaints with the General Services Administration (GSA), which is leasing the property to Trump. However, he said he would encourage constituents to do so if they wished.

In a statement, GSA spokeswoman Kamara Jones said Trump’s billboard has been in front of the historic Old Post Office (OPO) in downtown Washington since September 2014.

“GSA allows signage to be placed in front of major construction sites to inform the public about the work that is happening on the site and who is doing the work,” she said.

“The signage is not political advertising; it merely informs the public about the renovation of the OPO into a luxury hotel.”

Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, said there are rules for pre-existing business communications that weigh in favor of the argument that Trump’s signs are not campaign-related, but he said the billboard certainly raises the question.

Regardless of what the sign is intended to mean, Weiner said, “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

“We don’t look at advertisements and try determine their intended meaning, we look at what does the thing look like and go on that,” he said. “It’s immaterial if he says 'That’s not what I intended.' ”

In a statement to The Hill, Ivanka Trump, executive vice president of The Trump Organization, said it obtained all the necessary approvals for the signs on Pennsylvania Avenue a long time ago.

“Construction at Trump International Hotel, Washington D.C is well underway and ahead of schedule, she said. “When the redevelopment is completed, this will be the finest luxury hotel in the country.”

The Federal Election Commission said it does not comment on specific cases or candidates, saying, “anyone can file a complaint if they feel the law is being violated.”

As for Allen, he said he would have raised the issue if the signs were for President Obama. 

“That large of a sign on Pennsylvania Avenue that looks substantially like a campaign sign to me is the corporation expending resources that look an awful lot like Trump the campaign,” he said.

Regardless of whether his campaign signs were intentionally designed to look like his business signs or not, branding expert and author Karen Post said Trump is doing a good job building his brand by staying in the news.

“He is a smart guy and knowing he’s been in this branding space fore several decades with other venues, I would be surprised is hadn’t thought through some of these things,” she said. “It’s really too early to tell whether he’s truly shooting himself in the foot or creating a lot more discussion and conversation, which can be a strategy for what you’re doing, whether it’s running a campaign or building a business.”