Walk of infamy: the Trump star causing a stir in Los Angeles
Political leaders in Los Angeles don’t mince their words about Donald Trump – they have called the former president a madman, a fascist, and “a clear and present danger to the stability of the country”. Yet when it comes to taking the small, symbolic step of erasing Trump’s most visible presence in the City of Angels, his star on the celebrity-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame, they have been strangely reluctant to turn their words into concrete action.
All indications are that the city leadership would like to see Trump’s star gone – ideally before next year’s presidential election. Political aides and others in and around city government say as much in background briefings and off-the-record conversations.
But they find it remarkably difficult to talk about it openly, a reflection of the dysfunction of LA city politics. On the few occasions they do, it’s usually to attempt to explain their inaction.
“I would vote to remove any city-owned public display of support for Mr Trump in a heartbeat,” city council member Bob Blumenfield wrote to an activist in March 2022 in response to a years-long campaign against the Trump star. “However, I have too many other critical issues on which I am currently focused.”
Asked about the star this summer, the California state assemblymember whose district includes the Walk of Fame, Rick Chavez Zbur, told a meeting of Democratic party activists to “stay tuned”.
When the Guardian asked what he meant, however, Zbur’s office responded first that he was too busy to comment, then said that his job was to work on state-level policy and he “generally defer[red] to local leaders on issues at the local level”.
Other elected officials have been similarly circumspect, tiptoeing around the wishes of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which has administered the Walk of Fame since its inception more than 60 years ago, and emphasizing the bureaucratic complications of removing a star where no star, no matter how controversial, has been removed before.
Their hesitation can seem perplexing in a city where Trump barely cracked 25% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election, and where, before he entered politics, he was treated not as a revered entertainer but largely as the butt of jokes and gossip.
“They’re paralyzed about making a decision,” said one prominent business leader in Hollywood, who like many others interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending colleagues or associates on a vexatious topic.
That paralysis astonishes activists like Andrew Rudick, a singularly determined campaigner who regularly confronts public officials about the Trump star at dedication ceremonies for new honorees on the Walk of Fame.
“It cannot be this hard,” Rudick said. “This man attempted a coup against the United States and yet we continue to honor him … How are we the voters supposed to have faith in the city council to deal with any real level of challenge if they can’t get this done?”
Trump’s star, which he earned after hosting several seasons of the TV reality show The Apprentice, has been repeatedly defaced or destroyed in the eight years since he first ran for president. Yet on each occasion the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has resisted calls either to remove it or to leave the damage un-repaired.
The star has also proved to be a magnet for street artists, who have variously turned the marble and terrazzo plaque into a mini-jail or adorned it with a toilet, tub and box files as a commentary on the classified documents found in a bathroom at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Rudick thought the star should have been removed as early as 2015, when NBC fired Trump from The Apprentice for characterizing Mexicans as rapists bringing drugs and crime into the US. And it struck him as a no-brainer after the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January 2021, especially since the LA city council unanimously passed a resolution calling for Trump’s removal from office because he had instigated a “seditious, racist and violent” attack.
The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has been strikingly consistent in saying that once a star is dedicated on the Walk of Fame, it is there to stay. The Chamber’s chief executive said so in 2015, after dozens of women came forward to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual abuse and his star became controversial. Cosby was convicted on sexual assault charges in Pennsylvania in 2018. His conviction was later overturned on appeal.
The chamber confirmed last week that its policy had not changed. A lawyer close to the chamber said that repairing damage to the star from pickaxes, a sledgehammer and can upon can of spray paint – a tab running into the tens of thousands of dollars – was “not cheap, but not so expensive it’s prohibitive”.
At times the chamber, and sympathetic city officials have asserted, without corroboration, that the Walk of Fame is a “California state landmark” and cannot be modified as a matter of law. “We have no jurisdiction there,” the then LA mayor, Eric Garcetti, said of the Trump star in 2018. “Like it or hate it, it’s there to stay.”
Yet the Walk of Fame is not included on an official list of California historic landmarks, and a spokeswoman for the state office of historic preservation said the city of Los Angeles possesses sole jurisdiction over “decisions regarding removal or modification” of any part of it.
Los Angeles itself lists the Walk of Fame as a “historic-cultural monument”, but according to the city’s planning department, the designation offers only limited protection against “substantial alteration” of the Walk of Fame as a whole – not changes to “one or a handful of stars out of over 2,700”.
What, then, is holding everyone back? People familiar with the Chamber of Commerce’s thinking – none of them willing to be named – say its leaders are afraid that by removing one star they would be inviting chaos, because interest groups of all kinds would surge forward and object to any number of other honorees, not just Trump or Cosby or others facing serious felony charges.
“It’s a slippery slope, and we don’t want to go down that slope,” a lawyer with connections to the chamber said. “We’re going to end up having nothing but controversy and protests.”
Plenty of people in Los Angeles, including political aides and Hollywood historians, would in fact welcome greater scrutiny of honorees. But the chamber has historically held considerable sway with the local councilmember, not least because the Walk of Fame is a major tourist draw that helps support businesses up and down Hollywood Boulevard. If other councilmembers have held back it is, their staff say, because they do not like to initiate action on issues originating in someone else’s district.
There are signs of things shifting, however, because a new councilmember took over in Hollywood last December, moving the district significantly to the left. Hugo Soto-Martinez is a former union organizer, with a history of standing up to business interests, and says he is willing to take on the troublesome patch of decorative concrete at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard, because, in his words, “Donald Trump is a racist, fascist, and a threat to our democracy”.
The question, though, is when. “Since there’s no known precedent for removing a star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame,” Soto-Martinez said, “we’re looking into where the authority lies, what the legal issues may be, and what a process for it might look like.”
Rudick, for one, is not holding his breath. “They say they’re not sure how to do it, even though I’ve laid out everything for them they may need,” he said. “I don’t understand the reticence. I don’t.”
One clue to the possible complications ahead can be found in a letter that Trump’s future employers at NBC wrote back in 1958, when a Walk of Fame was first being mooted and a lawyer for the broadcaster worried about the consequences of honoring people while they were still living. “Suppose that a currently prominent actor whose name is inscribed in the sidewalk is convicted a year hence of an infamous crime,” the lawyer, John West, wrote to the city. “Should his name be removed? Who would have the power to order the removal? Would the actor have acquired the legal right to enjoin the removal …?”
These concerns quickly proved more than theoretical. One of the first honorees, a bandleader and western fiddler named Spade Cooley, had his star unveiled in 1960, and a year later he was convicted of beating, stomping and choking his estranged wife to death in the presence of their 14-year-old daughter.
He remains, to this day, the only convicted murderer on the Walk of Fame. But his star is still there, just as West feared or predicted – and more than likely going nowhere.