יום שלישי, 27 ביוני 2017

‘It’s the End of Small Talk in Washington’

Illustration by Ed Fotheringham

There may be no city as unsettled by Donald Trump as the one he just moved to. A social anthropology.

By Daniel Lippman and John F. Harris

During the 1968 riots, Washington, D.C., was ablaze with arson and looting when an aide burst in to tell President Lyndon B. Johnson of a rumor that the carnage was headed toward the exclusive precincts of Georgetown. Johnson replied with acid humor: “I’ve waited 35 years for this day.”

LBJ was not talking so much about Georgetown as a physical place. He was talking about Georgetown as a state of mind, that web of journalists and socialites and former government officials—united by overlapping friendships and shared class, cultural and ideological affinities—that served as capital tastemakers and played on the social ambitions and insecurities of generations of presidents.

Georgetown as LBJ thought of it, and as presidents up through Bill Clinton encountered it, is now a faint ghost, largely a historical phenomenon. But its lineal descendant is still very much around. It is that group of scene-makers and self-promoters, along with some well-intentioned people who genuinely admire public service, that journalist Mark Leibovich skewered in his 2013 book This Town.

If these were normal times, the kind of people LBJ excoriated and Leibovich lampooned would be engaged right now in a familiar ritual. It would involve lunches and dinners with the new White House team, off-the-record chats about the workings of government mixed with let’s-be-friends chatter about real estate and schools and fitness routines. Presidential advisers would respond cautiously, flattered by their new social cachet, and correctly worried that they might be suspected of divided loyalties and leaks back at the White House.

But these aren’t normal times. Team Trump is showing few signs so far of hungering for the sort of social intercourse with permanent Washington that usually accompanies a new administration. And many longtime capital denizens in interviews describe themselves as put off by what they see as Trump’s personal vulgarity, and disturbed on some more fundamental level by the tornado of ethical controversies swirling around him.

“I think you are going to need a very strong blender to mix the Washington community with the Trump crowd, and I don’t think it’s going to end up being a smoothie,” says Sally Quinn, widow of the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. “A friend of mine said, ‘It’s the end of small talk in Washington.’”

If Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House has torn at the social fabric across the country, it has interrupted the rhythms and culture of daily life nowhere as much as the city where he now lives. Like many politicians, he ran against Washington, but far more than any president in memory, that outsider rhetoric has translated into outsider governance, a disdain for the capital that seems to translate into genuine disconnection from its existing networks. For Trump’s supporters, this amounts to a promise kept—a disruption, even a thrilling rejection, of America’s permanent governing class. But it also risks impeding his agenda by cutting him off from some of the levers that can help a new president govern, or at least navigate the unwritten rules and networks of the capital to get things done.

Permanent Washington has changed over time, in ways that at first blush might seem friendlier to the Trumps. Over the past few decades, the old Georgetown—epitomized by people like the late Post owner Katharine Graham and hostess Evangeline Bruce—has largely given way to the flashier, less aristocratic world of social mixers like political and media consultants Tammy Haddad and Juleanna Glover. Where the Georgetown of the 1960s was a world of Andover and Choate grads and inherited wealth, today’s D.C. macher class is a meritocracy of sorts, as likely to feature self-made strivers from state schools as it is the scions of Harvard and Yale. That might seem friendlier territory for the Trumps, given their nouveau-riche vibe, but it hasn’t worked out that way. While both old Georgetown and modern This Town lean strongly Democratic, even longtime Republicans say they feel a different kind of chill between Trump’s Washington and social Washington. One veteran of George W. Bush’s White House with deep connections to the city’s media and lobbying scenes says of the Trump team: “They wear our scorn as a badge of honor.”

Clockwise, from upper left: Senator John F. Kennedy and wife Jacqueline Kennedy are greeted by “The Hostess with the Mostest” Perle Mesta; President Kennedy and the first lady arrive for dinner at the Georgetown home of columnist Joseph Alsop, Feb. 14, 1961; Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham embraces Ronald and Nancy Reagan; Dr. Henry Kissinger in Georgetown with conservative writer Emmett Tyrrell, left, Kitsy Westmoreland and Gen. William Westmoreland, who was a Vietnam War commander. | AP/Getty Images/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There are exceptions, partial ones. Some Goldman Sachs alums now in the White House—chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell—are familiar faces to many social Washingtonians, who are reassured that they are influential figures at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But both, according to people in their circles, are still facing considerable backbiting from acquaintances who are incredulous that they are working for Trump.

“People are less anxious to go fawn over the new Cabinet and their wives,” confesses one longtime GOP Washington society figure. “I’m not interested in the Trumps and the Trump administration. I’m making no effort. Back in the day, I’d be having lunch with the new people.”

But part of what’s going on is that the “new people” are still having lunch—though often not with members of the establishment Beltway class. Trump swept into office promising to “drain the swamp” and touting his refusal to play by the usual Washington rules. Instead, he seems to be replacing one set of elites with another—it’s just that the old crowd hasn’t fully realized it yet.


If there is a social hub of Trump’s Washington, it’s his own business establishment—the glitzy and controversial Trump International Hotel Washington, D.C., in what was once the Old Post Office, just half a mile from the White House. One unique feature of this administration is its extraordinary wealth—the net worth of the Cabinet and senior staff has been estimated at as much as $5.2 billion—and top officials are regular guests at the hotel, where rates for a one-bedroom suite go as high as $5,925 a night. Before Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin bought a house in D.C., he was known to stay there during the workweek; early in the administration, another frequent guest was Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon, who earned her fortune the old-fashioned way: from pro wrestling. On any given night, K Street lobbyists and Trump insiders can be found mingling in the hotel’s gilded Benjamin Bar & Lounge, sipping $29 cocktails and dollops of wine served in crystal spoons. Trump hasn’t exactly broomed the city clean of its webs of influence: He’s just shifted them two miles east.

“Many clients that come to town want to be at the Trump Hotel, want to stay at the Trump, want to dine at the Trump,” says a Republican government relations consultant who goes a few times a week—and sometimes has as many as five meetings a day at the hotel. “We know that members of the administration frequent the hotel itself, so when we hear that the term ‘lobbyist’ was coined over at the Willard, now the new lobbyists’ lobby is probably the Trump Hotel.”

If there is a social center in Trump’s Washington, it’s his own business establishment—the glitzy and controversial Trump International Hotel, in what was once the Old Post Office, just half a mile from the White House.

“You’re always going to see people,” adds another Republican operative who works for a prominent trade association and stops by the Trump Hotel at least twice a week. “It’s just a great place to gather intel,” this person says. “On Friday night, you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into senior staff.”

“They look at it as a piece of the president,” explains Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor and one of the more social members of the administration. “So it’s become a very popular place to have dinner,” especially for business people coming into town.

Trump has dined at BLT Prime steakhouse in the hotel at least twice since it opened, but he generally eats in the White House or, on weekends, at one of his clubs in Florida or New Jersey. Until mid-June, Melania Trump was not even a physical, much less cultural, presence in the capital, remaining in New York to take care of their son, Barron. So the social role of the first couple for the first five months of Trump’s presidency fell ostensibly to West Wing couple Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who are renting a white brick mansion in the Kalorama neighborhood from a Chilean billionaire for $15,000 a month. But Ivanka and Jared, who have three young children and observe Shabbat on Friday evenings, don’t get out much, either.

The Trump-Kushners live a three-minute walk from Barack and Michelle Obama, who moved into the neighborhood right after they left the White House in January—a location right in This Town Washington that offered the chance to build some new ties. But the contrast with the Obamas has been instructive. Weeks before the Obama move, Secret Service and Obama staffers approached nearby homeowners to explain what the security measures would look like, and what disruptions they could expect. A few weeks later, these same neighbors received personal notes from the former president and first lady thanking everyone for their patience—with a future invitation to their new home.

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