Once it was like a second White House for the Maga crowd. Now it is in danger of becoming a white elephant.
Clobbered first by the coronavirus pandemic, then by its owner’s election defeat, the Trump International Hotel in Washington is reeling from a huge loss of income and prestige. For critics of the former US president, it is welcome proof of how quickly the city is moving on without him.
“It used to be the hub of Trump World but I can’t imagine who goes there now,” said Sally Quinn, a local author and journalist. “We don’t even have tourists yet in Washington. I can’t imagine most people staying there when they come. I don’t know anybody who goes there or has gone there.”
The hotel opened amid protests in the historic Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and US Capitol building, in September 2016 as Trump campaigned for the presidency.
For four years its opulent lobby thronged with diplomats, lobbyists and Trump family members. It was one of the few places in the US capital where “Make America great again” hats were bountiful. But one recent afternoon it seemed more reminiscent of the haunted hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining.
Steel barriers surrounded the magnificent facade with its five US flags and statue of first postmaster general Benjamin Franklin. A black-coated porter explained that, due to coronavirus restrictions, only people invited by guests are allowed in. When the Guardian called the front desk, a man who identified himself as the manager said, “I’d rather not comment. Thank you for your call,” then hung up.
The hotel in Washington made just $15.1m in revenue last year, a drop of more than 60% from the year before. Then came Trump’s election loss and impeachment for inciting a deadly insurrection a short distance away at the US Capitol on 6 January, inflicting huge reputational damage.
On 20 January, Trump boarded the Marine One helicopter to start a new post-presidential life at his luxury Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, depriving the hotel of one of its biggest draws. A week later, the New York Times reported that the lobby was largely vacant and the waiters and staff members outnumbered the customers.
There was little mourning in Washington itself, where Joe Biden secured 92% of the vote compared with Trump’s 5%. Beyond official duties, the 45th president was rarely seen around the city, hardly ever visiting museums or theatres and only ever dining out at the Trump hotel itself.
Last month the Washingtonian reported that table 72 in a round booth at the hotel’s steakhouse was perpetually reserved for the president in case he decided to visit on the spur of the moment. The magazine also said it obtained a “Standard Operating Procedure” document for staff to follow whenever Trump arrived.
“As soon as Trump was seated, the server had to ‘discreetly present’ a mini bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. (This applied long before Covid, mind you.),” it reported. “Next, cue dialogue: ‘Good (time of day) Mr President. Would you like your Diet Coke with or without ice?’ the server was instructed to recite.
“A polished tray with chilled bottles and highball glasses was already prepared for either response. Directions for pouring the soda were detailed in a process no fewer than seven steps long – and illustrated with four photo exhibits. The beverage had to be opened in front of the germophobe commander in chief, ‘never beforehand’.
“The server was to hold a longneck-bottle opener by the lower third of the handle in one hand and the Diet Coke, also by the lower third, in the other. Once poured, the drink had to be placed at the President’s right-hand side. ‘Repeat until POTUS departs.’”
Trump always ate the same meal: shrimp cocktail, well-done steak and fries, sometimes with apple pie or chocolate cake for dessert, according to the Washingtonian. “The manual instructed the server to open mini glass bottles of Heinz ketchup in front of Trump, taking care to ensure he could hear the seal make the ‘pop’ sound.”
A tray of crisps, chocolates, granola bars, Tic Tacs, gummy bears, Oreos, chocolate-covered raisins and other snacks had to be on hand. The magazine added that Trump once demanded to know why his dining companion received a bigger steak than he did, while first lady Melania Trump once sent back a Dover sole because it was dressed with parsley and chives.
The hotel and its steakhouse witnessed a cavalcade of Maga stars from the lawyer Rudy Giuliani to the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, from the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz to the MyPillow chief executive, Mike Lindell. The former treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, the British actor Louise Linton, even lived there for a time.
Members of the Trump family also figured prominently, a draw for fans seeking selfies, and guests could indulge at “The Spa by Ivanka Trump”, including a “Himalayan salt chamber” and “fitness center with the latest Technogym equipment” – but temporarily closed due to Covid-19. The bar was a place to sit and watch multiple TV screens showing sport or Fox News.
It was, in effect, a Trump embassy in this otherwise liberal city. Quinn observed: “He never went anywhere except the Trump hotel and most of his people didn’t so it was just like an occupying army. You didn’t see them and everybody sort of went on about their lives but there was this awful dark cloud over our heads.”
In 2019, Trump reportedly tried to sell the hotel for about $500m, but those plans are now said to be on hold. The hotel is nine stories tall and has 263 rooms. A casual look at its website shows rooms available from $476 a night, suites from $1,122 a night and signature suites from $1,316 a night.
Kevin Chaffee, senior editor of Washington Life magazine, said: “The Trump hotel has been struggling for quite a while and, without him being there, people don’t need to curry favour by staying there. Some embassies had their events there and they don’t need to do that now.”
He added: “The bar was like the White House mess but those people no longer have any reason to meet and try to find out what’s happening on the scene because the man is gone. So it must be like a ghost town.”
The Trumps left few other traces in Washington. The former president’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, have vacated a mansion they rented in the neighbourhood of Kalorama while working as senior advisers at the White House.
The couple have since moved to a luxury condominium in Miami, Florida. Their old house is listed by estate agents as still available to rent for $18,000 a month. It has six bedrooms and seven bathrooms, spans 5,016 square feet and is a stone’s throw from Barack and Michelle Obama’s home.
Jack Shrestha, owner of the Kalorama Guest House, which is a mile away, said: “The residents in my neighbourhood where I live is over 90% Democrats so they’re happy Trump is gone. But I’m a business owner. I don’t take sides. For me, it doesn’t even matter.
“Ivanka’s son went to school where my daughter went to school, a Jewish school up in Cleveland Park. So I used to see her drop off the kid out there. We didn’t say much because they had told us not to talk to her and take pictures or anything like that.”
Washington is dotted with memorials, monuments and statues of former presidents. Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are already making themselves visible. For now, however, Trump’s hotel ensures that his name remains spelled out in gold letters on Pennsylvania Avenue, arguably America’s most famous street.
Quinn commented: “I suspect that whoever does buy it will take down all the gilt and all of the trimmings and turn it into something else that’s very un-Trump-like.”