A fantastic story in the Washingtonian details how patrons at Trump’s property were climbing all over each other to grease their way to power’s proximity.
By: Jack Holmes/Esquire.com
We scarcely ever talk about the fact that our most recent ex-president was an extremely weird guy. Completely bizarro specimen. This inalienable truth was reinforced in a Friday story from the Washingtonian on the life and times of restaurant staff at Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel, a gig that it turns out was also weird, stressful, demeaning, and in some cases highly lucrative. But mostly: weird.
There were Trump’s obsessive demands about how his Diet Cokes and bottles of ketchup should be opened in front of him. He insisted on “a tray of junk food” with every meal that included “Lay’s potato chips (specifically, sour cream and onion), Milky Way, Snickers, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Tic Tacs, gummy bears, Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Nutter Butters, Tootsie Rolls, chocolate-covered raisins, and Pop-Secret.” He got the same meal every time: shrimp cocktail, well-done steak, and fries. “Popovers—make it a double for the President—had to be served within two minutes and the crustaceans ‘immediately.'” In one notable incident, Trump’s dining partner got a slightly bigger cut of well-done steak than he did, which apparently caused a furor. It brings to mind the Two Scoops Policy that so entranced everyone back in the early days. Oh, and nobody was allowed to sit at Mr. Trump’s booth except for a few of his Knights of the Dolt Table, like Mike Pence or Rudy Giuliani.
But back to that “lucrative” element. It turns out that the job of seating people who are clambering all over each other to get close to power comes with a number of performance-based incentives.
Michel Rivera, a former bartender at the lobby bar, says he pulled in more than $100,000 a year with tips (at least $30K more than he made at the Hay-Adams). He says it’s the best-paying job he’s had in his 25-year career, with generous health benefits to boot—a comment echoed by many other ex-employees.
“People would literally come up to me and give me $100 bills and be like, ‘You must be the best bartender in the world if you work here!’ ” Rivera says. “A group of three or four guys would come up, have a round of drinks—I could easily sell them over $1,000. You don’t see that at too many bars.” One restaurant manager says she’s never worked anyplace else where guests would so often try to grease her palm “like the old Mafia days,” angling for proximity to power. “I’d have people try to palm me to get closer to someone’s table, if a politician was in, or try to sit at Trump’s table, which is a big no-no,” she says. “I declined, obviously. I would get fired if we moved someone to Trump’s table.”
In a way, this is a microcosm of the whole damn thing. The former president’s Great American Heist was built around the essential sham of his relationship to his business—that is, the idea he’d separated himself from his personal business interests while serving as, and wielding the powers of the president. He pantomimed this separation with a press conference featuring a comically large stack of manila folders that he claimed contained documents that would disentangle him from his businesses, but which the attendant members of the media were not allowed to examine. This was a joke from the very beginning, when a Saudi-funded lobbyist marked Trump’s election victory by paying for 500 rooms at the D.C. hotel. For his first international trip as president, Trump ventured to Saudi Arabia to place his hands on The Orb. Then he sold them all the weapons they wanted and excused away the assassination of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggii, which the CIA concluded was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The Saudi enthusiasm for Trump hotels continued at his New York property, where a visit from MBS and his entourage reported boosted revenue for one quarter there by 13 percent.
Palms were greased, martinis were drunk.
This played out over and over again with Trump’s properties, including with huge hotel reservations where many of the rooms ultimately went unfilled. They were paying him not to stay at his hotel! Since these folks were putting money in Trump’s pockets without even using the services they were putatively paying for, you have to wonder what they were getting in return. Maybe it was something he could grant using the vast powers of the American presidency—which is, of course, why we have public ethics laws and the Emoluments Clause, even if it seems the latter has been stripped of all teeth. In another incredibly shameless example, T-Mobile executives marked their proposal to merge with Sprint—a move that would require approval from Trump’s Executive Branch—by dropping $195,000 at his D.C. hotel. John Legere, the incessantly grinning CEO, could be seen waltzing around the lobby in full T-Mobile regalia. If only politicians had to wear the logos of the companies backing them this way, NASCAR-style.
And that’s what’s at play throughout Jessica Sidman’s entire examination of the Trump International Hotel in Washington and its BLT Prime restaurant. Everybody is there to curry favor with the big man, because everybody understands what’s going on here. You pay the toll, you ride the ride. If you want Executive Branch approval for something, you spend some money and make sure the right people know it. If you want entry to the upper echelons of MAGA power, you grease the maître d’s palm to be seated near Larry Kudlow, or whatever. That’s another sad indictment in the Washingtonian piece. It’s a stunning look into the utter mediocrity of right-wing celebrity.
Regulars such as Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell were always around the lobby taking selfies with fans. In the restaurant, some top White House officials including Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders preferred more private booths in the back. But generally, the place to be was a table along the balcony rail on the mezzanine, overlooking the lobby and its soaring ceilings. That’s where you might spot Meadows, or American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, or then–Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler.
Personally, I would grease some palms to avoid catching a glimpse of Matt Schlapp, whose path from the Brooks Brothers Riot to MAGA apparatchik now feels inevitable. It’s a shame that we handed the country over for four years to some of the least scrupulous and even less impressive people we could find. It’s incredible that this all played out with relatively minimal consequences, a testament to the closed right-wing information ecosystem and the strange power of doing things right out in the open instead of behind closed doors. At least that friendly bartender, Michel Rivera, was able to syphon off some of their ill-gotten gains, one martini at a time.