It was a Tuesday night at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, and the marble-floored, chandelier-covered, gold-trimmed lobby was buzzing. On a cushy chair by the bar, former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo was explaining why he wears a skull ring on the middle finger of his right hand and a bracelet on his left.
The jewelry's origin story included a Ukrainian murder, love, a French circus, hiding out from the mob, an Indian ashram, the Rolling Stones, and a campaign to get out the vote in Russia, but he wasn't worried about being overheard by enemies.
"If you go to a bar on Capitol Hill, you go to a restaurant downtown, it's somebody else's place," Caputo said. "This is Trump Land. It's not even a neutral zone. It's not even like no man's land. This is Trump Land. People from the campaign, people from the administration, feel comfortable coming here."
A new symbol of the presidency
Spending almost 50 straight hours inside Donald Trump's second-most important building on Pennsylvania Avenue — from late morning on April 25 to the early afternoon two days later — shows why it's the perfect symbol of his presidency. The hotel lobby is drawing Trump fans who cheered his promises to drain Washington's swamp, along with the power players who know how to swim in it. Because much of their money will end up in Trump's pocket, and the government he controls leased the building to him, few places present more potential conflicts for the president.
That week, Trump was barreling toward the end of his first 100 days in office by cobbling together his one-page tax overhaul, racing to revive a health care bill, and avoiding a government shutdown.
Glass of milk, $8; vodka cocktail, $100
Nothing seemed amiss inside his 263-room hotel. The lobby, with its Swarovski chandeliers and glass-topped atrium, is bright even on a bleak Tuesday afternoon. On one side, tourists sat below a four-story U.S. flag, flipping through a bar menu that offers an $8 glass of milk, a $100 vodka cocktail with caviar, and one ounce of Hungarian wine in a crystal spoon for $140. The corn nuts, with truffle oil, are free.
On the other side, BLT Prime's $110 porterhouse for two can be accompanied by a $16 tarragon lobster fondue. The mezzanine, where the president has eaten well-done steak with ketchup, is perfect for watching people downstairs. Trump has visited the hotel at least five times this year, more than once a month.
Below the lobby, a spa offers $340 couples massages, something called "curated rituals," and, for $225 in the skin studio, a "diamond whitening treatment." The place is named for White House aide Ivanka Trump, and so is a suite that costs about $940 a night.
For ordinary people, ‘a nice place to go’
By an elevator Tuesday evening, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was cradling a small dog in his arms. The former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partner, who would present Trump's tax overhaul the next day, went up at about 10 p.m. A grandmother from Florida on a trip to see a friend was eating fries by the bar. She raised her arms to praise Trump's renovation of a 118-year-old former post office, a project that cost about $200 million. She said it made her feel hope for the U.S.
Republican elephants adorned the socks of a tourist from Nashville, Tenn., and the cuff links of banking lobbyist Aaron Cutler, who arrived the next morning at 10. His office at Hogan Lovells is nearby.
"It's a nice place to go when you want to have a conversation with somebody and you don't want somebody on top of you listening in," said Cutler, a senior policy adviser for Eric Cantor when the Republican was House Majority Leader. "There's a bird," Cutler said, spotting what looked like a sparrow inside the lobby. It was there the day before, too, hopping on a cream-colored carpet by one of the bar's cream-colored armchairs.
Breakfast on the mezzanine, in walks Giuliani
While Cutler drank a mid-morning cola, Boris Epshteyn was on the mezzanine eating breakfast in a three-piece suit at a table for two. Epshteyn, raised in Soviet Russia, left as a Trump media official this year and became a political analyst. He returned to the hotel that evening, when important people were coming and going with entourages. Campaign ally and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was accompanied by four people and his monogrammed luggage. He stopped to examine a cart with five bottles of Glenfarclas whisky and smiled.
Congressmen and senators mingle
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy went up to the mezzanine, where the California congressman lifted his left hand with his palm held vertical, handing out a crisp wave and crisper smile. Downstairs at BLT Prime, South Dakota Sen. John Thune sat with his tie tucked into his shirt between two buttons. When the other three men at his table got up to welcome someone, Thune, chairman of the Commerce Committee and the Republican Conference, stayed snugly seated.
Giuliani, who's working for an Iranian-Turkish gold trader accused of circumventing U.S. sanctions, crossed the lobby again. This time he was accompanied by a woman wearing what looked like a blue fur.
Elected officials reminded of ban
That week, Noah Bookbinder sent a letter to senators about the hotel. The former federal prosecutor, who heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has a few bones to pick. As he sees it, the U.S. Constitution bars presidents from receiving anything of value from foreign officials without the consent of Congress, a problem now that Bahrain, Kuwait, and Azerbaijan have held events here. Plus, he says the 60-year lease Trump signed with the government in 2013 bans elected officials from being on it. The General Services Administration said in March that it sees no problem, and Bookbinder's letter asked senators to investigate why. His group sued the president over the hotel in January.
Trump still has a stake in the project, though he put it in a trust controlled by his adult sons, who now also run the Trump Organization. His lawyers said he will donate hotel profits from foreign governments to the Treasury, without detailing how that would work.
Tourists learning their way around
Tourists seemed more concerned about finding the clock tower. Some stood in the main elevators, which won't work without a key card, before being told they had to leave the hotel, walk three-quarters of the way around it, past the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, step through a corridor, take one elevator, walk some more, and take another. After soaking in the views of Washington, including the White House about five blocks away, they exit through an unfinished hallway museum that says the area used to be known as Murder Bay, on account of the bodies found dead here.
The gold standard
Recently, a tourist with a huge Trump button on his short-sleeve shirt ate with his family on the mezzanine. Former Bear Stearns economist David Malpass, tapped to be a Treasury undersecretary, sat downstairs with Judy Shelton, an economic adviser on Trump's campaign team who supports a return to the gold standard.
That fits the hotel, where restaurant receipts come with gold-colored paper clips. Upstairs, the hotel bathrooms have gold-colored door handles, towel racks, soap dishes, faucets, showerheads, mouthwash bottle caps, tissue holders, mirror frames, wall art, light fixtures, trash cans, toilet paper dispensers, and backup toilet paper holders.
It was easy to book a room for about $600 a night that week on a few days' notice, even when the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons hotels were sold out. The service was smiley, the marble shiny, and pillows plentiful. The real world only intervened thanks to some wilting flowers and uncleared dessert dishes in the lobby.
Reminded of Russia
The night when Caputo was sitting by the bar, telling the story of how he met his wife while working on a Ukrainian political campaign, then followed her to France and India, the former Trump adviser said the hotel reminded him of a particular country.
"Russia," said Caputo, who did work for a subsidiary of state-owned Gazprom and a Boris Yeltsin campaign. "They have buildings that are 900 years older than this," he added, before walking across the marble floor to eat a steak.
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