A night at Trump's D.C. hotel, the GOP hot spot emptied by coronavirus

Sharon Weinberger and Jana Winter
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·13 min read

“Hello, Ms. Weinberger.”

In better times, it might be impressive when a security guard you’ve never met before opens the door of a five-star hotel and greets you by name. It might mean that you’re important, or at least that someone is trying to make you feel important. But during the coronavirus pandemic, this sort of personalized greeting comes with the sinking realization that you may well be the only guest to have checked in that day.

It was just after 5 p.m. at the Trump International Hotel, and in normal times, guests are greeted by white-coated doormen, but this day it was just the security guard, followed by a cheery blonde wearing a mask at the reception desk. (When Jana Winter showed up an hour or so later, the greeting outside was initially chillier; a different staff member cracked open the door and demanded photo identification. But once identified as a guest, she was quickly let inside.)

We were offered bottles of water, escorted up to our executive room on the fifth floor and then left to figure out what exactly we should do. We envisioned perhaps dozens of staff devoted to the remaining few guests, perhaps a stranded Gulf prince or a few devoted GOP insiders.

We saw none of that.

FILE - In this March 11, 2019 file photo, the Trump International Hotel is seen in Washington. District of Columbia Attorney General is suing President Donald Trump's inaugural committee and two companies that control the Trump International Hotel in D.C., accusing the groups of abusing nonprofit funds to benefit Trump's family.  (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (AP/Mark Tenally)

If we imagined we’d be like Eloise at the Plaza, under the lockdown the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., is more like a scene from “Cheers” in hell: You can sit at the bar, but no drinks are served, and everybody knows your name because you’re the only ones there.

Much has been written about the Trump International Hotel, located just a few blocks from the White House in the historic Old Post Office, which the president’s business transformed from a dank food court into a five-star hotel decorated in ornate fabrics, crystal chandeliers and ubiquitous gilding. Until mid-March, it also served as a meeting place for D.C.’s Republican power brokers.

The hotel has also faced a slew of lawsuits, and allegations that the president is using his office to benefit his business, particularly since it has attracted foreign guests who are in Washington to lobby the Trump administration.

Now, however, the near-empty hotel is faced with a different dilemma: It is, like so many businesses during the pandemic-forced shutdown, facing genuine economic hardship, but any attempt the Trump Organization makes to seek relief comes with an inherent conflict of interest. After all, how can a hotel owned by the Trump family business ask for help from a government run by Trump? But that is exactly what it’s done.

Eric Trump, the third child of the president and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, confirmed to the New York Times last week that the business was in discussion with the General Services Administration, the government agency in charge of the lease, to modify its terms. (Eric Trump did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News. The GSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03:  The American flag hangs in the Trump International Hotel on February 03, 2020 in Washington, DC. Closing arguments began Monday after the Senate voted to block witnesses from appearing in the impeachment trial. The final vote is expected on Wednesday.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The American flag hangs in the Trump International Hotel on Feb. 3. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

We wanted to see just how badly the hotel had been hit by the shutdown, and knowing that with the bars and restaurants closed, staying overnight seemed the only way to get inside, we booked a room. In a lobby usually bustling with politicians, GOP glitterati and Trump world figures, the bar had been stripped down: the velvet throne-like barstools are gone, and the tables have been moved apart in anticipation of social distancing guidelines when things reopen.

We were later told we were the only ones on our floor, and no one was on the floors below us. The floors above us, where the more expensive suites are located, did have some guests, but it was unclear how many. (“Slower than we would like,” the friendly blond woman at the receptionist desk said when asked during check-in how things were going at the hotel.)

Once we were settled in the room, we faced the question most guests at the hotel likely now face. What can you do at the Trump hotel during a pandemic? The restaurants are all shut; so are the gym and The Spa by Ivanka. Sometime after 6 p.m. we noticed that downstairs, Trump’s then-daily coronavirus task force briefing was playing on the televisions, so we asked if we could sit in the lobby near the closed bar.

“As long as you socially distance,” the front desk told us.

That wasn’t hard, since when we got downstairs the only other person in the lobby was the hotel’s managing director, Mickael Damelincourt, hunched over his computer, next to what appeared to be a bottle of disinfectant. And there we sat, in the empty lobby — two reporters on one side (socially distancing from each other), the hotel manager on the other — as the president spoke, his voice echoing inside his empty interior.

 Mickael Damelincourt, managing director of Trump International Hotel, in the lobby.
Mickael Damelincourt, managing director of Trump International Hotel, at a table in the near-empty lobby on April 22. (Sharon Weinberger/Yahoo News)

“These trends demonstrate that our aggressive strategy to battle the virus is working and that more states will soon be in a position to gradually and safely reopen,” Trump said as Damelincourt remained hunched, immobile over his computer. “It’s very exciting. It was very exciting even today, watching and seeing what’s happening, and people are getting ready and they’re all excited.”

As the press conference drew to a close, we headed back to our room, to look at the temporary room-service menu printed out on a few stapled-together pages. With the restaurants closed, the hotel is down to a bare-bones menu that includes six entrées, including chicken tenders with french fries and cheese pizza. Even so, the food that arrived was very good, served under multiple cloches and accompanied by tiny bottles of ketchup and mustard.

Who does stay at the Trump International Hotel in the middle of a pandemic, other than a couple of curious reporters? From Instagram there are clues to some recent guests, and not surprisingly, they are some of the same characters who frequented the establishment pre-pandemic.

Yahoo News reached out to eight different Instagram accounts that appeared to feature recent stays at the hotel. The only people who responded were Harlan Hill, a Republican strategist and Trump campaign advisory board member, and his girlfriend, Caroline Rocha.

Hill, a frequent guest at the hotel, stayed there the evening before we did, to celebrate Rocha’s birthday. He received a personal text from the manager and the promise of a special room.

During Hill and Rocha’s stay they both posted photos on Instagram, including what looked like professional shots of their corgi, named Hamilton, sitting on a Trump hotel bed, of their room service food and of Rocha in a bubble bath dusted with rose petals.

“The hotel said, ‘Please keep posting on social media,’” she told Yahoo News. So she did, a lot.

Was this a publicity stunt? “Maybe,” she replied.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Hill said the manager told him that things were starting to pick up, and that occupancy had doubled week over week. Though if that doubling is from, say, two to four guests, or four to eight, is impossible to know.

According to Hill, the long-term guests — meaning those who often lived at the hotel on weekdays and headed home on weekends — aren’t yet returning, but other regulars “are coming back into town for business.”

Rocha, his girlfriend, gushed about their treatment; the hotel upgraded them to a better suite and brought up a birthday cake with a sparkler. The dog-friendly hotel even accommodated their corgi, who was given the signature bacon from BLT Prime, one of the hotel’s closed restaurants, chopped into pieces.

“We go to seek refuge,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News, adding that “it’s the one place where Republicans go and can feel safe.”

“We call it the mothership,” she joked.

Trump Hotel
Televisions in the hotel's lobby showing President Trump speaking during a White House coronavirus task force briefing on April 22. (Sharon Weinberger/Yahoo News)

The mothership for now, however, is more like the empty spaceship of Hollywood movies, where a few humans move around aimlessly inside living quarters meant for hundreds.

Yet Hill thinks that ultimately, the Trump hotel, with its cavernous interior, is better situated than others to come back once the lockdown is ended. Unlike other hotel power bars in Washington, the Trump hotel has enough space to keep the tables far apart. “At most places there isn’t a lot of space. There is at Trump. Everything is spread out.”

Hill and his girlfriend aren’t the only GOP members to remain loyal to their former stomping ground, even during a pandemic.

Republican Louisiana Rep. Clay Higgins showed up at the hotel last week, before our stay, with Matt Busbice, who has previously appeared in an A&E reality show called “Country Buck$.”

“Normally in old cowboy movies, the bad guys wear masks,” Higgins, with a bandanna over his face, says in a video posted on Busbice’s Instagram account. “Right now, everybody gotta wear a mask.”

Higgins, who has previously raised hackles for filming inside a gas chamber at Auschwitz to make the case for a strong national security, said in the Instagram video that he and other congressmen would be gathering at the Capitol the next day to push to open the economy.

“Many of us have come from across the country. The most conservative congressmen and congresswomen will be gathering tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll see if we can move the needle in the right direction and open our country back up. “

UNITED STATES - JUNE 26: Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., is seen after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Louisiana has one of the highest death rates in the country for those infected with the coronavirus, and Higgins in particular has faced criticism for referring to “government oppressors” amid the shutdown. Neither the congressman nor Busbice responded to multiple interview requests.

A spokesperson for Higgins did not respond to a request for comment about his stay at the hotel.

Zach Everson, who writes the newsletter 1100 Pennsylvania, which follows the Trump hotel’s conflicts of interest, says he fully expects previous visitors to be back. “This is a market segment that is downplaying the risk of COVID-19,” he said in an interview. “If you’re going to tie yourself to the president, and you think it’s important enough to go to the hotel, you’re not going to let fear of pandemic keep you away.”

In his latest newsletter, Everson, who is also tracking Instagram posts of people at the hotel, writes that while “occupancy at D.C. luxury hotels has slowed to a trickle, at least one party of apparently recent customers included a commercial sex worker.” (Yahoo News reviewed the Instagram posts of a woman working at a local strip club who had posted pictures last week appearing to show her at the hotel.)

“We have absolutely no knowledge of this and would caution you [not] to publish baseless claims made by Mr. Everson in his ‘newsletter,’” wrote Patricia Tang, the hotel’s director of marketing and sales, in response to a question about Everson’s claims.

Everson points out that though the hotel’s occupancy rates, even in the past, may have been low, it has likely made up for them through its food and beverage sales, its event space and by charging rates above other competitors in D.C. (Our executive room with two queen beds, which included breakfast, cost us $615 plus taxes for the night; the cheapest non-discounted room was just shy of $400.)

During our night at the hotel, however, we spotted neither lawmakers nor GOP movers and shakers, just a bearded man dressed in a Gap sweatshirt who we assumed was the quarantined version of David Burke, the New York chef who runs BLT Prime in the hotel (Burke did not respond to an email requesting comment).

One thorny issue facing the hotel is that its occupancy problems predated the pandemic. Though it might be a favorite for Republicans and some foreign clients, it has been nearly half empty on average, according to a Washington Post report from last fall, and the Trump Organization has been seeking to sell its interest in the lease. And if President Trump loses in November, the hotel’s appeal as a GOP hot spot could fall even further.

In other words, the pandemic may simply have accelerated the downfall of an already troubled business.

Yahoo News
The empty lobby of the Trump International Hotel on April 22. (Sharon Weinberger/Yahoo News)

In the morning we ordered room service, which arrived promptly, served by a friendly staff member whose tone was upbeat, even if his message was a bit dismal. “We are the only five-star hotel in Washington, D.C., and we are owned by Mr. Trump with a capital T, so everyone is panicking,” he said. “But what can you do? There’s nothing you can do.”

After breakfast we stood in the open corridor on our floor looking down at the empty lobby, where Damelincourt was working from the same table he had been at the night before, when Trump beamed from the televisions.

We wrote Damelincourt an email, explaining we wanted to interview him for an article about the hotel before we checked out, and watched as he appeared to read our email and immediately leave his table in the lobby. He emailed back almost immediately with an effusively polite reply, wishing us a nice stay. “I am unfortunately in back to back calls today but we will be happy to answer any question you have if you send them to me,” he wrote.

Later, in response to our questions about occupancy, the status of staff members, including any layoffs or furloughs, and plans for the future, we received a written statement in Damelincourt’s name from a Trump International Hotel representative.

“Our incredible team of Associates continue to deliver five-star service, going above and beyond to provide the finest luxury experience despite what we are all enduring,” it read. “We look forward to returning to our vibrant, bustling atmosphere as soon as it is safe for everyone.”

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