President Donald Trump had some advice for George Washington.
During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.
“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”
The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.
America’s 45th president is open about the fact that he doesn’t read much history. Trump said in July 2016 that he had never read a presidential biography — and had no plans to do so. Though he is an avid fan of George Patton, the flashy, tough-talking World War II general, he has shown less interest in learning about his presidential predecessors or about the office he now occupies. Former White House aides say Trump initially did not know the history of the Resolute Desk, which has been used by presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes, though he now enjoys showing it off to visitors to the Oval Office.
Trump’s lack of interest in presidential history, said the historian Jon Meacham, means that he has“basically thrown out the one data set available to him. We don’t have anything else to study. It’s all you got.” It also stands in contrast to the fascination of other presidents with their predecessors. Even former President George W. Bush — not known as a tweedy intellectual — consumed several presidential biographies while in office.
A spokeswoman for Mount Vernon pointed to a statement posted on the estate’s website at the time of the president’s visit. “We are always happy to extend the famous Washington hospitality to the President of the United States and visiting dignitaries from around the world,” said Mount Vernon Regent Sarah Miller Coulson. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as "truly bizarre." The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.
A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in" Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.
Trump asked whether Washington was "really rich," according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.
“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.
If Trump was impressed with Washington’s real estate instincts, he was less taken by Mount Vernon itself, which the first president personally expanded from a modest one-and-a-half story home into an 11,000 square foot mansion. The rooms, Trump said, were too small, the staircases too narrow, and he even spotted some unevenness in the floorboards, according to four sources briefed on his comments. He could have built the place better, he said, and for less money.
“Mount Vernon has a policy of not providing details about high profile visits outside of the official statements provided by the organization,” a spokesperson for Mount Vernon told POLITICO.
Many Americans don’t fare much better than the president when it comes to a knowledge of the basic facts of American history — and one person close to the White House said the president’s supporters aren’t bothered by the fact that he isn’t a history buff.
“His supporters don’t care, and if anything they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that he doesn’t know much history, this person said.
A recent survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that just four in 10 Americans today can pass the country’s citizenship exam, which is comprised of several multiple-choice questions about the Constitution and American history, such as "Who did the United States fight during World War II?" and "What is one right granted under the First Amendment to the Constitution?"
But most Americans do not become president of the United States. After their tour of Washington’s mansion, the Trumps and the Macrons dined in the house’s New Room, an experience rarely afforded even to the most exclusive visitors to the property, according to sources familiar with the site’s operations. The previous year, the Macrons hosted the Trumps for dinner in the Eiffel Tower, and the evening at Mount Vernon was meant to be a corresponding gesture.
Mount Vernon, which includes extensive gardens, a farm, a distillery and gristmill, and the tombs of Washington and his wife, Martha, attracts an average of a million tourists a year, including dozens of VIPs, according to its website. Bush visited the site with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2007, and foreign dignitaries from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have all dropped in while visiting the United States.
Bush also delivered remarks at Mount Vernon in February 2007, at a celebration commemorating the 275th anniversary of Washington’s birth.Bush praised the founding father, whom he said“many would have gladly made King of America,” for ceding power voluntarily.
“Honoring George Washington’s life requires us to remember the many challenges that he overcame, and the fact that American history would have turned out very differently without his steady leadership,” Bush said.
While quickly bored by Washington’s home, Trump has been eager to show off his own residence to guests, and has learned some White House history in the process. He loves taking guests on tours of the White House residence, according to current and former aides. He particularly enjoys pulling them into the Lincoln Bedroom and has learned about the copy of the Gettysburg address on display there so that he can talk about it when he plays tour guide.
And despite his criticisms, Trump found something to like at Mount Vernon, too. Among the artifacts preserved there is the bed where Washington passed away from a throat infection in 1799. Trump, who is infamously picky about where he sleeps and resists spending nights away from home, felt out the bedpost and told the Macrons and Bradburn that he approved, according to three people briefed on the event.
"A good bed to die in,” Trump said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine