Another Shitstorm in Fucktown
Asawin's chest puffed up. Lachlan rested his head in his hand and sighed. A hairsplitting dispute over a months-old news story looked as if it were about to turn into an all-out brawl in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel between a senior White House official and a reporter covering the West Wing.
It was both an absurd spectacle and a perfect encapsulation of our escapades as journalists in the Trump era in Washington, D.C. We were surrounded by the gilded splendor that is the Trump hotel lobby, flanked by a crew of mobbed-up-in-Trumpworld luminaries with whom we'd been having farcically overpriced cocktails and very amiable conversation just a few minutes earlier. And suddenly the whole thing was degenerating into a screaming match, with each party looking increasingly likely to throw a punch to the teeth.
The evening had kicked off after work at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, an ostentatious, now-defunct monument to the journalism profession that, when it wasn't singing the praises of reporters for "comforting the afflicted," rented out its glitzy rooftop lounge and patio to host receptions for the city's political elite. It was April 24, 2018, and the former FBI director James Comey, whom President Donald Trump had famously canned the year prior, was hosting one of those receptions: an open-bar party and book signing for his autobiography, A Higher Loyalty. We were two of the political reporters who came for the free alcohol and food and maybe to ask the fired FBI chief a dumb question. It was clear from the outset that nobody was going to be getting any news or provocative responses from a buttoned-up, on-script Comey that evening.
Asawin-already a couple drinks in and buoyant-waited in line to ask him to sign a copy of his book for "Donald J. Trump." Comey let out a polite chuckle and demurred. Instead, he signed the book for Asawin's parents. The Thai American Daily Beast reporter felt like being cute, so he asked Comey if he wanted to join the two of us at the Trump International Hotel, situated roughly equidistant from the Newseum and the White House, to "do some Fireball shots." Again, Comey delivered a robotic giggle or two and politely declined. Lachlan, the more conservative and less willing to make an ass out of himself of the duo, stood a few feet away from Comey and Asawin, literally face-palming. He had to remind Asawin that the Trump hotel "does not serve Fireball. I keep telling you this."
When we reached the lobby of "Trump D.C.," Comey was of course nowhere to be found, but all was not lost. Our cocktail companions ended up including an assortment of Trumpworld regulars such as Richard Grenell, a veteran Republican operative who would soon be confirmed as Donald Trump's ambassador to Germany. Everything had been friendly until Cliff Sims showed up.
Sims is best known these days as the author of Team of Vipers, a tell-all book about his time in the White House. But back then, he was still working in the West Wing as the director of message strategy. He was friends with the crew we were hanging out with, but we're not sure whether they mentioned, in inviting him over, that we were there as well.
A few months earlier, we had written a story about which Sims was clearly still seething. The piece (which we'll get into in more detail later) reported that two Trump aides, Andrew Surabian and Sims, would likely be tapped as two of the White House's new point men on crisis communications related to all things Russia. To this day they deny that it was accurate (it was). We'd taken our share of the shouts of "fake news!" that had become routine in covering the Trump White House, and while they continued to criticize the piece months later, Surabian at least had come to laugh about it, and we'd rib each other over the piece virtually every time we ran into each other.
Sims, though, was a different story. Our relationship was still on the outs when he sauntered up to our table, a knee-height glass one surrounded by couches adjacent to the Trump hotel lobby bar. Multiple people sitting at the table knew things hadn't been smoothed over with Sims, and they decided to stir shit up. Two people quickly made a point of bringing up our disputed story about Surabian and Sims, prompting us to insist that, actually, the story was completely factual.
We thought it was all fun and games at this point. Sims didn't like that and made his feelings clear. The next thing anyone knew, he and Asawin (or Swin as his friends call him) were standing inches apart, noses nearly touching, and screaming their cases as others in attendance attempted to break things up. Sims decided he didn't want to deal with this anymore and extended his right hand to shake Swin's goodbye. (Swin and Sims would speak in the weeks after this incident. Each would say, over a laugh, that he essentially wanted to rip out the other's throat at that particular moment at the hotel. Relations have thawed between the reporter and the former Trump adviser; in fact, Swin would honest to God prefer it if more Trump officials and associates would get in his face instead of ratfucking behind his back.)
Sims is a lifelong teetotaler, and was as sober at the time as Donald J. Trump always claims to be. Swin, on the other hand, was a few rum and Cokes deep and thoroughly pissed off. He rejected Sims's overture, loudly stating at least three times, "I'm not shaking his fucking hand!" Sims threw up his hands and headed for the door. At one point between the couches and the lobby exit, Sims turned around and made eye contact with Swin in one final taunt. The Daily Beast reporter took the bait and pursued him across the lobby, yelling the whole time. One of Sims's friends, in an effort to defuse the situation, tried to lure Swin back to the table. He placed a hand on his shoulder. Swin whirled, pushed him, and nearly knocked him over a piece of furniture.
By that time, Sims had made it to the exit, and no real blows had been thrown. Still, the shouting and drunken emotions didn't stop, and hotel security soon appeared, ready to eject Swin. Grenell, grinning widely, motioned to security that things were under control, and they backed off. Swin walked over to the bar to order more booze. Lachlan was thoroughly embarrassed and talked to Grenell for the rest of the evening, dodging whenever possible his idiot, truculent colleague.
Eventually, we both needed to get home to our respective girlfriends. In our shared cab ride home, Lachlan flatly stated, "I think my new favorite memory of us covering Trump together is you almost getting into a fistfight with a White House official at Trump hotel."
It was a casually ridiculous episode typical in our three years covering Donald Trump and his era in Washington. And it helped underscore just how thoroughly the old rules had gone out the window.
By that time, the Trump hotel itself had already become a symbol of the bare-naked corruption and gaudy opulence that defines the forty-fifth president's tenure. We were there mingling with people with whom we'd become friendly, even though they think we're part of a borderline-treasonous disinformation apparatus and we think they're part of an incompetent graft machine. This irreconcilable conflict had nearly resulted in a physical altercation at the center of political power in Trump's Washington.
And in true Trumpian fashion, though tempers flared, threats were made, and heated words were exchanged, in the end not much was accomplished.
There used to be a different geographic center of the American political universe. A block from the White House, just across the street from the Treasury Department, sits the storied Willard InterContinental Hotel. ItÕs a historic place, dating back to 1850; the building itself was actually constructed thirty years earlier. Abraham Lincoln lived in the Willard for ten days before his stint in the White House. Martin Luther King Jr. prepared his ÒI Have a DreamÓ speech in the hotel. And if you believe the Willard staff, itÕs where the term ÒlobbyingÓ was coined, by President Ulysses S. Grant, to refer to the special interests congregated in the hotel lobby, hoping to bend the ear of government officials who frequented the place.
The story is apocryphal-the term dates back over a century earlier, and to the British House of Commons-but in the Washington of Grant's day the Willard lobby was indeed a place where political business was done, mostly informally through D.C. social networks and handshake deals over high-end cocktails. Eventually, the term "lobbying" took on a meaning of its own, divorced from the physical structure from which it ostensibly originated, at least in American political parlance. A century and a half later, few would associate lobbying with an actual building lobby.
Until, that is, the era of President Donald Trump.
In Trump's Washington, the physical locus of political power isn't the Willard. And it isn't even the White House. It's that damned lobby in the Trump International Hotel down the street, at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue. Administration officials, members of Congress, cable news personalities, political influence peddlers, corporate executives, the president's legal teams, chaos agents, and foreign diplomats all regularly flock to its sprawling, gilded atrium to mingle, suck up, be seen, bask in the omnipresent political glow that pervades the place. Omnipresent, at least, until a certain someone is out of office.
Sharply dressed hosts and waitstaff shepherd visitors into plush, low-seated couches and love seats throughout the sprawling lobby. Cocktail prices run into the three figures. Bar food includes strips of thick-cut, candied bacon served hanging from a plated clothesline. A giant American flag adorns the wall behind the crystal-covered bar, right above an array of large flat-panel televisions, two of which are perpetually tuned to CNN and Fox News. The sound is only ever turned up on the latter, at least whenever we've been around.
The hotel occupies one of Washington's oldest and most historic structures, the Old Post Office, and its clock tower offers one of the most stunning panoramic views of the capital's skyline. But prior to the Trump Organization's renovation, it had descended into a depressing state of disrepair. The only publicly accessible portion was a dingy food court. Even his most vehement detractors must concede that Trump did, in fact, make that place great again.
The hotel's quintessentially Trumpian hallmarks were evident early. Abutting the southern end of D.C.'s bustling downtown business district, the hotel sits right on the commuting route of many professional Washingtonians. Just as Trump's presidential campaign kicked into gear, and scared the shit out of much of D.C.'s professional class, those commuters began seeing a new, very large sign on Pennsylvania Avenue. It read "TRUMP: Coming 2016." The sign referred to the hotel, but no one in a city built on and obsessed with politics could miss the electoral double entendre. (It even drew a complaint to the Federal Election Commission alleging it was effectively a campaign sign. The FEC disagreed and let the sign stay.)
We visit the hotel often, simply because there is no better place in Trump's Washington to meet and talk with the most plugged-in people in the president's orbit. Corey Lewandowski virtually lives there. Ryan Zinke was frequently seen holding court when he led the Department of the Interior. Eric Bolling, one of the president's favorite pundits, routinely makes the rounds, beaming and shaking hands with a litany of fans and acquaintances. Rudy Giuliani, Wilbur Ross, Stephen Miller, David Bossie, Sean Spicer, Donald Trump Jr., Steven Mnuchin, William Barr, Brad Parscale, Lindsey Graham-walk in on any given weeknight, and chances are better than decent you'll see several of them dining and partying. The night Anthony Scaramucci was fired from his brief stint as White House communications director, we headed to the Trump hotel, figuring there was no place in D.C.-including the White House-that we'd be more likely to spot him. And sure enough, shortly after we arrived, he wandered out of the hotel's steak house over to the elevators, pale as a ghost, declining to comment on the way.
Reporters know that the hotel is the place to mingle with the people running the country and those who have their collective ear. So too do the legions of people-from lobbyists to foreign dignitaries-seeking to influence the president and those around him. The whole place is a mecca of (legal!) corruption, where the powerful can hobnob with one another and be feted by those seeking to break off a piece of their influence with the president.
And the best part about it, if you're President Donald Trump, is the whole thing is making you richer. The president can still draw profits from the trust he created upon taking office and into which he deposited his extensive assets. And when he leaves office, even that thin veneer of recusal won't be an issue any longer. So every dollar spent on Trump hotel cocktails while schmoozing a White House aide in the hopes of getting in the president's good graces is a dollar added to the president's balance sheets. He's created the incentive for that influence-seeking, and the venue for it, and he's collecting on the back end. No one ever said he wasn't shrewd, at least when it comes to a simple grift.
All of this is to say that we are fully aware of our complicity in Trump's monetization of the presidency. Just as the capital's influence-industry professionals mingle at the Trump hotel to win favor with the administration, we mingle to meet sources and in the hopes of building relationships and getting good, useful information. That inevitably requires the purchase of significant volumes of libations and an occasional meal. In the summer of 2017, we perched up on the patio of the hotel during a political fund-raiser, which drew throngs of protesters outside. One protester angrily demanded to know why we were financially supporting the president. We explained that it's part of the job. Swin told the protester he understood and sympathized with what she was saying but that he was tired and if he didn't have a drink while being forced by his bosses to go to the Trump hotel on a weeknight, he might blow his brains out before he turned thirty.
Our patronizing of the hotel is a microcosm of the degree to which Trump has subsumed Washington. Doing business in D.C. these days largely means doing business Trump's way-whether your business is government, lobbying, or journalism. That's true to a degree with every administration, which naturally alters the town's workings in dramatic ways. But Trump is such a uniquely narcissistic figure who demands unparalleled loyalty to himself personally that he, more than perhaps any prior president, individually defines and shapes the political environment in which he serves.