This story has been updated.
For eight years, Mitch McConnell tried to kill the Obama presidency — but as the week’s first inaugural parties kicked off, he looked ready to dance on its grave.
With his secretary-designate wife, Elaine Chao, on his arm, the Senate majority leader was greeted like a rock star at the Bluegrass Ball, where about 700 Kentuckians leapt to their feet and hoisted tumblers of bourbon in his direction.
“Four years ago, I didn’t stay quite as long as I’m likely to stay tonight,” the Senate majority leader said, his mouth creeping into the world’s smallest smile, his chest bisected by a fat red tie of the sort favored by the president-elect. “As you know, we’re beginning the process of making America great again.”
Cheers erupted around the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Women threw their hands in the air, unleashing the furs from their chair backs. Big men with buzz cuts tucked pinkies between their teeth and whistled. It was pure partisan ritual, accompanied by spoon bread and chestnuts.
Every four years, one political party exults in the other’s defeat with a cascade of black-tie events — the personification of the kind of elitism Donald Trump vowed to eradicate from Washington. This week, though, the capital did what it’s always done: gone through the quadrennial motions of pomp, with only glancing regard for the circumstance.
Not to say it was, you know, normal. That was clear by Thursday night, when Bill Clinton’s accusers showed up at another party. “Paula and I are having a blast at this first gala,” tweeted a smiling Juanita Broaddrick, who accused the former president of raping her in 1978. She posted a photo of herself wearing a black shawl over a crystal-beaded black dress with an arm around Paula Jones, who claims Clinton propositioned her in 1991. “Awesome,” she added.
Meanwhile, the first-ever “Deploraball” started slowly and weirdly, its name a perversely proud tribute to Hillary Clinton’s disparagement of a certain ilk of Trump supporters. Though held at the National Press Club, reporters were denied entry to the affair — can’t trust the media, you know — and yet the event was livestreamed for the public, a couple thousand online viewers watching a man in a white dinner jacket and sunglasses dance to Michael Jackson as red-capped Trump fans trickled onto the dance floor.
Outside, on 14th Street NW, a few hundred protesters shut down the block, lit fires and chanted at the arriving guests: “Fascists go home! Fascists go home!”
Blocks away, in the basement of the Willard InterContinental hotel, at a gala hosted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson said that she voted for Jill Stein.
“Considering all the information I had, I couldn’t make that choice [for Hillary],” said Anderson, wearing a light-pink dress with a shimmering cape. “But here we are, and somehow we’re doing the best we can.”
One floor up from the PETA gala, there was a fur-coat sale at a Neiman-Marcus pop-up shop. Michele Bachmann was lingering there, wearing a black fur stole with sneakers.
“Oh we heard about that [PETA event],” said the former Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate. “That’s why we came to visit the furs.”
On Wednesday, as Bluegrass Ball attendees were getting tipsier, the Latino Coalition was rolling out the metaphorical welcome mat for Trump, as if those comments about “rapists” running across the border were just, you know, locker-room talk.
“Everyone’s offended, so it’s a wash!” said California business executive Leo Lobato Kelly, who didn’t vote for Trump. Around him, guests consumed aged tequila and mini arepas inside the Ronald Reagan Building, about 1,000 feet down Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Trump International Hotel.
[Obama’s Cabinet has farewell lunch two days before inauguration]
Things were a little more refined at the British Embassy earlier Wednesday, during an afternoon tea-and-champagne reception to which Ambassador Kim Darroch and his wife welcomed 500 people. Rudolph W. Giuliani, perhaps tired of posing for photos, slipped out during the ambassador’s speech about the peaceful transition of power, but lingerers included Newt Gingrich, Corey Lewandowski, and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who was wearing his custom-made black ostrich Lucchese boots.
“I am energized and excited,” said Cruz, who once called the president-elect a “pathological liar.” The once and probably future candidate had the Texas Black Tie and Boots Ball on his calendar but planned to skip other festivities. “Heidi and I are not big on cocktail parties,” Cruz said.
Despite Trump’s lifelong example of doing everything big, there were flickers of retrenching and downsizing this week. The Arkansas State Society forwent its ball because few seemed to care about it this year. The Veterans Making America Great Again gala was scotched at the last minute because of, organizers say, financial and security issues. Hotels are less than completely booked. Event spaces big and small are going unrented.
[The Trump inauguration is shaping up to be Washington’s smallest party in years]
Trump himself popped up here and there. Ambassador Darroch was “genuinely charmed” by PEOTUS and his team at a black-tie dinner Tuesday with 150 diplomats at the Mellon Auditorium, the first of several exclusive, closed-to-the-press events for top donors to the Presidential Inaugural Committee. The event featured performances by Southern rock group Alabama and a Broadway-like revue paid for by casino billionaire Steve Wynn.
“I think that people were genuinely surprised that the president-elect came to a dinner built around the diplomatic corps,” said Darroch
At Thursday’s “Salute to the Senate” at the Jefferson Hotel, guests nibbled on baby lamb chops and shrimp while millionaire donors waited at the lobby door for limos to whisk them off to Trump’s candlelight dinner. “Isn’t it nice to have a brief moment of the graciousness that used to be typical of Washington during periods of uncertainty and transition?” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
Not for those uptown at the Josephine Butler Parks Center, overlooking Malcolm X Park, where Emily’s List, Jezebel and Fusion hosted a happy hour and panel titled “What to expect when you’re expecting the worst.” Two open bars served a largely female crowd of around 150, including veterans of the Clinton campaign.
“I’ve stopped crying and I’m ready to fight,” Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said during the panel discussion.
Kellyanne Conway showed up at the Indiana State Society ball at the Grand Hyatt. Fran Drescher attended the Peace Ball at the National Museum of African-American Culture and History, because why not? A magician-mind reader roamed the floor at the New York State Society ball at the Fairmont Hotel. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel was at the French Embassy but not talking to reporters. Men were double-fisting margaritas and MAGA caps sat atop Stetsons at the Black Tie and Boots ball at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
Back at the Bluegrass Ball, the ladies’ room looked like a battlefield, according to one attendee, with women so over-bourboned that they were lying on the floor. Bottles of imported beer were going for $12 each. There was at least one gold bow tie and at least one man dressed as KFC mascot Colonel Sanders.
“Everybody loves the colonel,” said a white-suited C.J. Sizemore, a brand ambassador for KFC, “and the colonel represents Kentucky.”
Where in Kentucky does he live?
“I live in Illinois,” the colonel said.
Staff reporters Helena Andrews, John Woodrow Cox, Marc Fisher, Emily Heil, Monica Hesse, Maura Judkis, Sarah Polus, Veronica Toney and Dave Weigel contributed to this report.