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.”
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.
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.
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.
Tennessee, 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.
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 press 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.
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 Senator 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.
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.
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.
Tuesday 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.
Reminds me of Russia, too.