Through the glass roof nine stories above, the white mid-afternoon sunlight bathes the scene: the two American flags, the Trump rostrum, the 150 journalists who are here to feed at the trough. Trump is 10 minutes late for his press conference and hotel tour, and some journalists joke about staging a walkout, to take a stand, to show who's in charge here, but this is just talk, because Mr. Trump is in charge here.
You hear him first. Not his voice. It's the flutter of camera shutters, making the sound of pigeons when they're disturbed. He enters the atrium through a plywood arch onto a plywood walkway (a plywood red carpet, really). He is a big man, but he carries himself at this moment with — is it humility? His eyes are downcast. He's in navy. He doesn't wave or smile or smirk. He heads for the rostrum, trailed by Secret Service and a phalanx of hotel staff. He is surprised by how his voice echoes majestically in the atrium, where there is order even in the clutter.
"This is a great speaker system. It's unbelievable."
The hotel staff forms a human backdrop. One is in a chef's uniform. Some are wearing hard hats. (Shouldn't we all, then, be wearing hard hats?) Mr. Trump is wearing his hair, which from the back looks like the furrowed wake that a speedboat would leave on a lake of orange sherbet. It is magnificent, just like the hotel, even in this dusty state. The hotel is two years ahead of schedule, can you believe it? It will open in September, four months before his inauguration.
"It's a great thing for the country. It's a great thing for Washington."
The media do not want to talk about the hotel. The media want to talk about Trump. There are the usual questions about the campaign, electability, protesters, foreign policy. Then there is a question, from a woman in a cream-colored blazer, about jobs for veterans. She seems to be one. She likes the Old Post Office. She's a designer. It's hard to hear her.
"What are you looking for?" Trump asks her, summoning her to the front. "Do you mind if I do a job interview right now?"
"Oh my God," the woman says, as Trump shakes her hand and guides her to a hotel staffer, "thank you."
"If we can make a good deal on the salary, she's gonna probably have a job, okay?" Trump says. "All right. Good. Have a good time. Thanks, sweetie."
The woman returns to her seat, crying, perhaps suddenly employed by a billionaire and possible future president. It's a genius bit of campaigning. The media ask him about this thing that just unfolded in front of them.
"I looked at her, and I have gut instinct, and we're allowed to have that. … Look at that, with the tears. She just seemed like a good person to me. Now, maybe she won't qualify, because you have to qualify, but I think she will. … She's gonna become a superstar. She's gonna move out to Hollywood."
A star is born, right here, in an active construction zone on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Next, a man in a corduroy jacket raises his hand. Trump calls on him. You can feel the Secret Service stiffen. The man has that air about him. He tells Trump he's praying that his pick for vice president is Dr. Ben Carson. Journalists turn to each other. What is going on? Who is this guy? Who was that woman?
The media, vying for control, ask about Paul Ryan. Trump says he called last week.
"He couldn't have been nicer."
The media ask about Mitch McConnell. Trump says he called last week.
"He couldn't have been nicer."
Outside on the sidewalk, Tony Ensminger sells his buttons and Andrea Weiskopf holds her sign.
HATE CAN'T MAKE AMERICA GREAT, hers says.
TRUMP 2016: FINALLY SOMEONE WITH BALLS, his says.
The sun is somewhere behind the Old Post Office, which is wrapped in navy signage that heralds the hotel. TRUMP, in big white letters. Weiskopf, a Latin teacher in Fairfax, is on spring break. So last night she went to A.C. Moore and bought herself a white poster to make a sign.
"Someone has to stand up," Weiskopf says, a little under-dressed for this last snap of winter, "and it might as well be me and my little sign."
Ensminger, six feet away, sells Trump buttons (three for $10) and Trump red hats ($20). He came down from Cleveland because he knew Trump was going to be in town: to charm GOP leaders, to meet with the editorial board of The Washington Post, to speak to pro-Israel lobbyists, and to give a news conference and tour here at this new hotel on Pennsylvania, a half mile from — and a full seven stories taller than — the White House.
"They got a sign saying it's about hate," says Ensminger, smoking a menthol cigarillo. "But how is it hate if you're for jobs in America, for legal immigration? I don't understand it."
Somewhere south of here, President Obama is shaking hands with Raul Castro.
Back inside the granite building, the sun sinks beyond the glass roof, and the atrium dims into shades of gray. By the autumn, this will be all carpeted and curtained in federal blues, royal ivories, deep reds. In the guestrooms there will be black marble and crystal chandeliers and shiny brass showerheads that look gold. There will be a 6,300-square-foot luxury suite with a private street-level entrance. It will be nearly eight times the size of the Oval Office.
Trump is starting to do renovations on himself too. There is a deal to close, after all. He's calmer today. Nicer. There's no crowd to fuel him, or unnerve him. Here, in the midst of a historic landmark that he's resurrecting, he's the great builder, the giver of jobs. Look at the progress around him. Look at it all happening. Look how he can change someone's life, just like that. And so he modulates.
"We'll see what happens," he says in response to a question about getting enough delegates to win the nomination outright. "Maybe I won't. … The worst that happens? I go back to this — " he motions to the nascent luxury hotel — "which isn't so bad."
There is time for one more question.
"Who's got a good question?" Trump says, in the loving tone of someone staring into a bin of puppies. "Who's my favorite reporter?"
It doesn't really matter what's asked, or how it's answered. Afterward, a dozen journalists swarm the woman who's apparently Trump's latest hire. Trump walks on the plywood, ready to play tour guide, and the rest of the media skitter after him, bottle-necking between the concrete mix and the two-by-fours, looking for a glimpse of what lies ahead.