The European diplomat crunched celery from his Bloody Mary at the hotel bar. Hundreds of donors to a conservative think tank buzzed around the lobby, awaiting a speech from Vice President-elect Mike Pence in the presidential ballroom.
“This is the place,” the diplomat said amid the rumble of Tuesday night activity, declining to allow his name to be used as he recounted the many powerful people in Washington who suddenly want to hold meetings or events here, at President-elect Donald Trump’s newest hotel.
“In a way, it’s a bit of hype,” he said.
Trump and hype have long gone together, as evidenced by the $100 cocktail on the hotel menu that combines rye and vodka with a modicum of caviar and a raw oyster.
Until his improbable political journey, however, Trump’s style had been mostly absent from the nation’s capital, a city he vanquished by mocking its values, expertise and conventions.
Now Washington, where just 4% of the voters chose Trump, must decide how to adapt to the man who will not only run the White House, but have his name prominently affixed to a landmark hotel just a few blocks away.
“We are the nation’s capital, and we need to be respectful of the president and give the president all of the honors of the office,” said Elissa Silverman, a city council member. “But as a city, I would say we have different values.”
Unlike California, whose distinct government and culture sit across the country in opposition to Trump, Washington cannot live apart from the next president. Its workers, its subways and its reason for being depend upon the federal government, which Trump will soon control.
In some respects, the Trumpification of Washington has already begun:
A new casino opened this week, just south of the city across the Maryland border, a serendipitous tribute to the first former casino magnate to occupy the White House.
Foreign governments have begun holding events at the Trump International Hotel – including a Hanukkah party co-hosted by the Azerbaijani embassy — raising questions about whether Trump and his family are profiting from such goodwill gestures.
Politicians and think tanks who once shunned Trump are crafting new polemics, reconsidering old opinions and hosting symposiums designed to win his favor and demonstrate their influence.
Trump, though, is holding the city at some degree of distance, spending most of his transition period in New York, where his wife, Melania, and son Barron intend to remain through the end of the school year. His daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both key advisors, are said to be house-hunting in the Washington area.
Meantime, some locals have mounted small signs of resistance, like the city council deliberations over whether to cut funds for inauguration parades, the newly purchased rainbow flags suddenly cropping up in Pence’s neighborhood to make a statement about his history of opposing gay rights, and residents rushing to patronize a local pizza place that has become the focus of a bizarre, false conspiracy story, which alleged the shop was tied to a Democratic child-sex ring.
As a city, I would say we have different values.
The city council debate came after Silverman raised questions last month about the city spending more than $300,000 to build a heated, glass-enclosed viewing stand for the inaugural parade, as it did for President Obama’s swearing-in four years ago.
“I don’t think we should be building this Cadillac Escalade, fully loaded stand,” she said in an interview.
She lost that battle. The local government thought it unwise to provoke a man who enjoys the art of retaliation.
That does not guarantee the viewing stand will be fully used, however. Another city council member, Yvette Alexander, recalled that thousands of people called the District Building eight years ago seeking tickets for the first black president’s parade. This year, she has yet to field a single call.
The city was majority African American when President Obama took office, and, despite some demographic shifts, remains majority minority, one of several factors in local voters’ rejection of Trump.
But even as Alexander’s constituents opposed Trump overwhelmingly, and even as Trump bashed Washington mercilessly, Alexander does not think the city needs to live in perpetual conflict with the next president.
She makes a distinction between “Big Washington” — the metaphor for Congress and the federal government that politicians love to attack — and “Little Washington” — the actual city of police officers, trash collectors and others who make it possible for Big Washington to function.
Mayor Muriel Bowser tried to emphasize some of those differences when she went to Trump Tower on Tuesday to chat with the president-elect for an hour. Her top priority: Money to fix the district’s ailing subway system, an issue on which she might find some common ground with Trump.
Still, the Little Washington continues to operate far differently from Trump’s vision for America. The city council voted this week for a bill that would add $250 million a year in business taxes to guarantee parents two months’ leave to care for newborns and adopted children, one of the most aggressive family leave policies in the country. It approved a minimum wage hike this year that will escalate to $15 by the year 2020.
Many of Trump’s and Pence’s newest neighbors say they are proud of such progressive policies.
Earlier this month, Pence moved into a white two-story house with forest-green shutters in the city’s affluent Chevy Chase neighborhood. It’s a short-term arrangement until he moves into the official vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory next month.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist who lives a few houses away, was walking his dog Dakota past the house one recent day. He pointed across the street, to the home of Sylvia Burwell, who serves as Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. He gestured down the block, to the home of a high-ranking official at Planned Parenthood.
He knew of only one conservative in the neighborhood, Fenn said, the director of a super-PAC who has ties to the Koch brothers.
Fenn’s home and car still display Hillary Clinton logos. But he said he and his neighbors are not trying to re-litigate the election with the newly pressed rainbow flags on their houses. They delivered Pence a note asking him for a meeting, which Fenn insisted was a welcoming gesture.
But they are also making a statement, pointing to Pence’s history of supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, his opposition to laws protecting gays from discrimination, and a law he supported as Indiana governor that would have allowed businesses that cited religious objections to deny services to gay and transgender people.
“This isn’t a cheap shot,” Fenn said. “Those are about fundamental issues.”