When Donald Trump kicked off his presidential run at New York’s Trump Tower last summer he not only announced his candidacy but his intention to build “one of the world’s great hotels.”
“It’s gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C.,” Trump said of the Old Post Office pavilion, the 1899-era building he was turning into a luxury hotel. “We got it from the General Services Administration in Washington. The Obama administration…the most highly sought-after project…We got it. People were shocked, Trump got it.”
Thus began two parallel Trump campaigns: a formal bid to be elected president and a somewhat less conspicuous effort to promote the 263-room hotel, which had (mostly) opened last month.
Trump argues his campaign benefits his businesses because of the incredible media attention he attracts on the campaign trail. And he has taken full advantage for his company, the Trump Organization, by consistently plugging the hotel at press conferences, rallies and debates.
A record 84 million people tuned in for the first debate, with Trump telling viewers at one point that the D.C. hotel was “under budget, ahead of schedule, saved tremendous money.”
Then during the debate Sunday night, with 66.5 million people watching, Trump cited the hotel as evidence of his large balance sheet — and noted it is conveniently located near two of Washington’s biggest tourist attractions, the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Political onlookers often note the hotel plugs with surprise and with good reason, as there is no recent precedent for a presidential candidate pitching his wares on the campaign trail, according to Allan Lichtman, a American University history professor.
“He ‘s really the only candidate to do that in modern history,” Lichtman said. Partly Lichtman said that might because Trump is the only candidate without a record of public service since businessman Wendell Willkie was clobbered by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
Lichtman, a Democrat, noted that the last GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, had considerable business experience but rarely mentioned those interests while campaigning. Closer to the opposite.
“I don’t recall [Romney] promoting his own enterprises, in fact he distanced himself from being this rich plutocrat who got rich in part on firing workers and taking over companies. So if anything he tried to distance himself from his business life and focus on his public service, which was considerable,” Lichtman said.
The practice could be saving Trump significant marketing dollars. For instance, had Trump decided to buy advertising for the hotel during the pre- or post-debate coverage — as any hospitality firm might have done — he would be paying somewhere between $120,000 and $300,000 for each 30-second spot (per estimates of rates for the first debate).
Instead, throughout Trump-the candidate’s-campaign, Trump-the-businessman has mixed in mentions and on-camera appearances for his D.C. hotel, effectively swirling a hotel marketing campaign into election coverage. Here’s a look at the duel efforts.
Last June, with the Iowa caucuses eight months away and the hotel’s opening more than a year off, Trump introduced both himself as a candidate and the hotel to the American people.
Presidential pitch: “If I get elected president I will bring [the American dream] back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”
Hotel pitch: “We’re building, on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we’re converting it into one of the world’s great hotels. It’s gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C. We got it from the General Services Administration in Washington. The Obama administration. We got it. It was the most highly sought after — or one of them, but I think the most highly sought after project in the history of General Services. We got it. People were shocked, Trump got it.”
March press conference
This spring, riding atop the polls to be the Republican nominee and well into construction on the hotel, Trump gives the project its peak moment in the sun by inviting scores of Washington reporters into the grand lobby and giving a speech that made little mention of his candidacy.
Presidential pitch (in response to question): “I’m very different than Hillary Clinton, to put it mildly. We have a very different style. I don’t think she will be one who is going to do much with our trade agreements that are killing our country. People have no idea how important that is…She will be weak on the military and weak frankly with other countries and the amount of money we subsidize them with our military, which nobody talks about.”
Hotel pitch: The full pitch is five minutes long and can be watched here. Some excerpts:
– “Close to 300 rooms, super luxury and going to be amazing and going to employ substantially more than I would say 500 people…The hotel is going to be incredible”
– “Where you are now is part of the hotel lobby and we’ll see that in three months. And behind me are restaurants, stores and shops and everything above the second floor is rooms, suites, luxury suites a we are building one of the biggest ballrooms in Washington. The largest luxury ballroom in Washington and in the Washington area.”
– “We are still on budget and have gone to a higher agree of finishes and marbles and fixtures, bathroom fixtures, windows, et cetera. We want to make this one of the great hotels of the world. I think it’s coming out that way and when it’s completed, you will be proud of it. It’s a great thing for the country and Washington.”
– “I think you will be proud of it as people who love this country, I think you will be proud of it. This is some of the staff we have, some of the construction workers and probably close to 1,000 construction workers on the the on site. The windows which are landmark, much of the building is landmark.”
Afterward the Associated Press reported that “Trump, in campaign break, resumes old job as businessman.”
September press conference
Having won the Republican nomination, Trump held another press conference at the hotel — again carried live on television — four days after the property’s soft opening. The event was held in the ballroom that daughter Ivanka is betting can do a lucrative events business. Trump also tweeted a photo of the building crew in advance.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2016
Presidential pitch: “We want to all get back to work, whether it’s building our military or building our country. We have to get back to work. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve been very much left behind, speaking with the admirals and generals and all the military people.”
Hotel pitch: “This is a brand-new ballroom. You only see a small piece of it because we have it broken down, but this is — the hotel is completed, we’ll be having our opening ceremony in October, and it’s going to be something very special. It’s such an honor to have our first event.”
Also: “I said this will be the best hotel in Washington. I think it may be one of the great hotels anywhere in the world, that’s the way it turned out. So I’m really honored to have this as our first event.”
At the end, Trump made headlines by formally acknowledging that Obama was an American citizen. Politico wrote that “Trump kicks off ‘birther’ press spectacle by promoting his hotel.” Washingtonian Magazine wrote “Donald Trump Tricks National Media Into Covering His New Hotel.”
At the first debate, on Sept. 26, Trump managed to pop in a short hotel mention.
Presidential pitch: “But we have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us. We have to stop our companies from leaving the United States and, with it, firing all of their people.”
Hotel pitch: “We’re opening the Old Post Office. Under budget, ahead of schedule, saved tremendous money. I’m a year ahead of schedule. And that’s what this country should be doing.”
Trump was behind in the polls to Clinton for this debate but even then he still found time to plug the hotel.
Presidential pitch: “I began this campaign because I was so tired of seeing such foolish things happen to our country. This is a great country. This is a great land. I’ve gotten to know the people of the country over the last year-and-a-half that I’ve been doing this as a politician. I cannot believe I’m saying that about myself, but I guess I have been a politician.”
Hotel pitch: “I have a very, very great balance sheet, so great that when I did the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, the United States government, because of my balance sheet, which they actually know very well, chose me to do the Old Post Office, between the White House and Congress, chose me to do the Old Post Office. One of the primary area things, in fact, perhaps the primary thing was balance sheet.”
Trump says he is not getting out of the presidential race even though polls show him badly trailing Hillary Clinton. That gives him almost another month for Trump-the-businessman under the bright lights.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz