In the weeks after the 2016 election, as he prepared his review of a steakhouse at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., the food critic Tom Sietsema had trouble finding dinner dates. “Never in my career,” he wrote, “have more people turned down the promise of a free meal.” A “new acquaintance” told him it was “too soon” to enjoy a popover, dry-aged Kansas City Strip, and glass of Bordeaux at a property owned by the president-elect of the United States. The acquaintance missed out. Sietsema enjoyed his experience. He gave BLT Prime two-and-a-half stars, for a rating of “good/excellent.”
Not so Emily Jane Fox of Vanity Fair. “Trump’s D.C. Hotel Is a Frightful Dump—and a Scary Metaphor for the Trump Presidency,” read the headline of a screed published on November 10, 2016. Fox couldn’t get over the sight of the president’s name, or the apparent hypocrisy of hotel rooms with bath towels made in India. Her thesis was overdrawn: “Trump’s new hotel, like his campaign, is a big idea followed by a lazy execution, a problem identified without any way of getting to the solution.” She noticed the place seemed empty, the work not quite finished. “Perhaps this is because the hotel is new,” she wrote. Well, duh.
By 2018, opinions of the hotel resembled Sietsema’s more closely than Fox’s. The Trump International, like its namesake, had become part of the background to life in the city. Its approval ratings were higher than the president’s. The Forbes travel guide gave it five stars. Condé Nast Traveler praised its service and amenities. Last October the economist Tyler Cowen devoted a column to its omakase restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa. “I enjoyed some of the best service of my life,” he wrote, “with plenty of peace and quiet to contemplate President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the District, where he received only 4 percent of the vote in 2016.” As I write, the Trump International is the top-ranked D.C. hotel on TripAdvisor. “From the minute you walk through the doors you are in ‘awe,’” says one review.
I wouldn’t say I feel awe when I walk through the doors of the Trump hotel, but I do feel impressed. The sensation begins on Pennsylvania Avenue as you approach the exterior of the Old Post Office, built at the close of the 19th century in the Romanesque Revival style, and lift your gaze to the pinnacle of its 31-story tower. Bellhops and doormen say hello as you arrive at the entrance. Once inside, you cross a gallery to reach the atrium, with the Benjamin Bar and Lounge at one end and BLT Prime at the other. You take in the dramatic, wide-open space, with its blue- and turquoise-velvet furniture, crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and gold accents. As the exceedingly polite staff directs you to a table for a $25 cocktail, you feel as if you have left Washington and ended up somewhere more exclusive. Which is, I suppose, the desired effect.
The hotel is a great place for the newcomer to become oriented to President Trump’s Washington. It’s where you can spot the various political celebrities, lobbyists, and oddballs who populate Trump’s world. The grandeur, gilt, theatricality, populism, familialism, and ethical ambiguity of the nation’s capital today are abundant.
When he leased the Old Post Office from the General Services Administration in 2013, Trump was not only securing a property. He was building a set for the reality show he would begin producing in Washington four years later. It’s a site of conflict, drama, beauty, and performance, artfully designed to evoke the nation’s past in ways that complement our ostentatious present. The food’s good, too.
To enter the Trump International D.C. is to visit what Tom Wolfe called a status sphere, a self-contained universe where individuals compete for recognition. In this particular sphere, few if any of the rules that govern the Washington establishment apply. The differences between the Trump International and other luxury hotels such as the Ritz, the Hay Adams, the Jefferson, and the Four Seasons are subtle but real. They are apparent in the work of the hotel’s chronicler, Zach Everson, a freelance journalist whose newsletter, 1100 Pennsylvania, costs $5 per month. Several times a week, Everson informs his readers of the Trump International’s guests, conferences, and alleged conflicts of interest.
If you’d like to know the latest details on the court cases and congressional hearings involving Trump and his hotel, including D.C. and Maryland’s lawsuit accusing the president of violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting business from foreign governments, 1100 Pennsylvania is for you. Everson also does a good job tracking which groups hold meetings at the hotel, and whether they have business before the government over which Trump presides when he isn’t tweeting. No other hotel in the D.C. metro area, needless to say, raises such constitutional and political issues. The Ritz has to worry about the D.C. health department. The Trump has to worry about the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Sometimes, though, Everson fails to distinguish between the real and pressing questions surrounding the hotel and the subjective attitudes of liberals who condescend to it. He pores over Facebook and Instagram posts of hotel patrons, including dozens of snapshots they take in the atrium with Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani. Who cares if a random dude wanted a selfie with America’s Mayor? Everson hardly could contain his sneer when an attendee at the Good Friday Prayer Breakfast at the hotel posted photos of her event with the caption, “God is opening up doors!!!” When a Washington Post correspondent sarcastically tweets from the Benjamin Bar that she is “evaluating my life choices,” must the public be informed? This isn’t reporting. It’s voyeurism.
The liberal response to the Trump hotel is another reminder of how difficult it is to disentangle legitimate complaints about the president from aesthetic disapproval of him and his supporters. When conversation turns to a Trump property, one quickly detects a whiff of snobbery in the air. Why? In its open design, bright lighting, and willingness to entertain everyone—even that most déclassé of Americans, the Trump voter—the hotel is if anything more democratic than its competitors. Provided you can afford it.
I went to dinner there the other night. As I walked up the steps, I encountered Tom Cotton. When I met my friends, I was informed that both the Club for Growth and the Republican National Committee were meeting at the hotel. Charlie Kirk greeted admirers in the lobby. Harlan Hill sat at the bar. Eric Bolling milled about in casual wear. As we waited for our table at BLT Prime, Ben Sasse strolled by.
I had entered a Republican safe space. The atmosphere was convivial, peaceful, and civil. And as I tucked in my napkin, and enjoyed tuna tartar and Dover sole, I had the pleasant, fleeting sensation that all of this was normal.