The desk clerk at the Trump International Hotel seems to sense grand opportunities in my arrival. “Would you give me the opportunity to escort you to your room?” she asks me at check-in. And then, minutes later, “Would you give me the opportunity to enter your room?” She says she recently came to the United States from Afghanistan, and she is excited about the opening of the hotel because she loves being around people. After I give her the opportunity to show me how the “Do not disturb” button works, she leaves and I figure our eight-minute interaction, prorated, has cost about $6.30.
Three years ago Donald Trump won a contract to transform downtown Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion, a grungy food court five blocks from the White House, into his 15th luxury hotel worldwide. A year ago he announced he was running for president of the United States. Seven days ago his new hotel had its soft opening, and suddenly the sense became palpable that Trump had already taken over the city, at least in some filigreed, metaphorical way.
So a few days after the opening, I go online and buy the cheapest one-night room available — $805, not including taxes — and check myself in.
Now I am here in the hotel’s giant atrium, enjoying a vast array of turquoise velvet furniture with the rest of the people of the Trump Hotel. One of us, a slim, dark-haired woman, is wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Two of us, white-haired men sporting calf-high athletic socks, are in “Make America Great Again” T-shirts. Several of us are in flag pins, many of us appear to have come from business lunches, and one of us, a tech bro-type, is fully reclined on his personal velvet sofa, twirling a hand toward one of the four “Phantom of the Opera”-style chandeliers suspended from the ceiling.
Nearby, another visitor gestures her friend across the marble floor: “Let’s take a picture next to the wine. Next to the Dom Pérignon.”
The writer David Foster Wallace was once assigned to compose an essay on the resplendent, mindless pleasures of a luxury cruise ship. He reported instead feeling profound despair and emptiness in the face of so much unfathomable pampering.
Staying at the Trump International is far from despairing. But it’s also far from mindless. It prompts a meditation on what it means to be wealthy. Or, what Americans think it means to be wealthy. Or, what some Americans think it means to be a certain kind of wealthy, and how that particular wealth can be found in this building whose website states, definitively and seriously, “Washington will never be the same.”
It’s a somewhat self-congratulatory wealth: “Hard work and vision. That’s what got us both here,” Trump says to you, via a phrase printed on the front of the room key card. “Never settle,” it says on the back. This wealth is always opulent and occasionally gaudy, like the king-size bed’s gold-painted headboard, in the shape of a crown.
After checking into my room, I find a large white plastic sack that sprawls, with a lack of accessorizing flair, near my television. It is filled with Ring Pops, the lollipops shaped like 100-carat engagement rings.
Probably the previous guest left it. But maybe the hotel left it as a welcome gift? I can’t rule out the possibility that Donald Trump thinks I would enjoy the opportunity to wear fake edible diamonds on every finger while rolling around on a bathmat monogrammed with a giant “T.”
The Trump Hotel has 263 rooms. The cheapest of those rooms is mine, the Deluxe-style, at $805, which topped $900 once tax was included, but was reduced online to the low $600s the morning after my stay. The most expensive is reportedly an $18,000-per-night suite. All of the rooms come with Trump shampoo and Trump mouthwash and Trump umbrellas and Trump chocolate in the mini-fridge. There is a shower as well as a tub. There is a television that gets all of the HBO channels. The mattress is very thick. The towels are very fluffy. The room gets very dark, with the flick of an electric switch that closes the light-blocking curtains.
At times I think I am the only person staying in this hotel. Which surely is not the case. But I never encounter another guest in the elevator, and I never pass another guest on the hall of my floor.
I do encounter lots and lots of tourists.
“I got a Trump water,” a woman says to her two sons, returning to the lobby sofa where she had parked them with their backpacks. “And a pen. Look at the pen!”
The woman — Ann from Seattle, she introduces herself — is staying at an Airbnb nearby. But, she confesses, she would much rather be staying at the Trump hotel. She has a reservation at the one in Atlantic City, which she has looked forward to ever since seeing the “Sex and the City” episode where Carrie Bradshaw stayed there.
Another time, a different tourist glances around furtively before settling into a leather armchair by the elevator. “This is nice,” the woman says to her friend. Then she makes a face; something was tickling her ankle. She reaches under the chair and yanks. “Oh, it’s a tag,” she says. “This chair still has a tag on it.” She examines the tag for a moment before folding it and tucking it in her purse.
This lookie-looing happens at other swanky hotels: the Four Seasons, the Ritz, or the Plaza in New York, where guests from Milwaukee or Sacramento line up for the high tea experience. But it happens in a different way at the Trump International, where the luxury is tied not to a brand but a man, and where that man professes to be both a man of exquisite tastes and a man of the people. A man who not only accepts that his supporters wear baseball caps indoors but, since announcing his candidacy, does so himself. A man who would hold a news conference, ostensibly to renounce his kooky conspiracy theorizing that President Obama was not born in this country, but then turn it into a flagrant publicity opportunity for this very hotel, as he would do on the morning I checked out. (“It may be one of the great hotels anywhere in the world,” he would say.)
The lookie-loos at the Trump International have not put on their Sunday best to roam around one of the “great hotels in the world.” They’re in fanny packs and sports jerseys, capri pants and Naturalizers. Trump has said he is a populist, and his heart-stoppingly expensive hotel at times has the casual vibe of the amusement park you’d drive one hour to visit but not two. Six Flags Trump.
“Did you get a picture of the sign, Gene?” a woman wearing a visor asks her husband, in a matching visor, shortly after they had hopped off an open-air bus in front of the hotel. “No, the sign.”
“I can get the sign or I can get your head,” Gene tells his wife, and he waits while she adjusts herself in his frame. “That’s the best picture of the week — you by the Trump,” he says.
Mostly, for paying guests, the experience of staying at the Trump International is like the experience of staying at any other nice hotel: high thread counts, fancy in-room coffee maker, friendly staff who say “My pleasure” instead of “You’re welcome.”
The thing about an $805-a-night hotel, though, is that it prompts the expectation, “I deserve,” which, for me, only grows as the expensive minutes tick by: When I order $24 “warm cookies and milk” from room service, I feel that I deserve for them to be warmer, and bigger, and softer than they are.
I deserve for there to be hair conditioner in my room, instead of two shampoos and a body wash. I deserve to not have to wait 30 minutes for my car to arrive from the valet. I have paid to have things the way I want them, and I want them just that way, and if I lived in this kind of wealth long enough I would probably run for president, too.
“We only have almond milk, not soy,” a server tells me with profound regret when she brings me a latte. The normal part of me says, “That’s fine,” and the deranged $805-a-night-part of me thinks, “I deserve soy.”
The staff seems to be attuned to what guests deserve; later I overhear the soy apologist in an earnest conversation with a colleague: “I feel we were able to be impactful tonight, that people got their turndown service,” she tells him. “We could have just said, ‘We don’t have enough people,’ but we didn’t.”
I actually didn’t get turndown service, as it happens. I think it was my fault for misusing the “Do not disturb” button, but it is still really unfortunate because I deserved turndown service.
It’s 4 a.m.
The other thing about staying in an $805-a-night Trump hotel is that any time spent not enjoying the $805-a-night Trump hotel feels like a waste, including the sleeping part.
Time to put on the Trump robe and Trump slippers and shuffle laps around the vestibule overlooking the atrium. It’s quiet, except for the low industrial hum of an air conditioner.
Earlier in the evening, I’d heard a faint clanging coming from elsewhere in the hotel, and I’d followed an orange extension cord down several flights of stairs, where I ran into a startled construction worker. It turns out that the nature of a “soft opening” means that the hotel is unfinished; there are whole floors strewn with ladders and drop cloths.
The Ivanka Trump Spa, too, is still all Spackle and drywall. The fitness center looks mostly finished, but when I try to leave, the door I came in through has locked and I have to snake through to a different stairwell with only Trump water and fluffy workout towels to sustain me on the journey.
It’s not a particularly fancy workout facility. It’s pretty basic.
Back in the room, Donald Trump is on television. He’s letting Jimmy Fallon pet his hair into a flyaway orange cloud. He’s talking about how he likes eating Wendy’s or McDonald’s on the road because he always knows what he’s getting.
I open a Ring Pop. I would believe Donald Trump intentionally left them in the hotel. I would believe he leaves them in all of his hotels, and that he enjoys them when he comes to town, drifting off to sleep while sucking on fake sugar diamonds.
Two days after my stay, I will learn that Priceline is advertising Deluxe rooms like mine for $376 a night.