Of course the Benjamin—the bar in the massive atrium of the Trump International Hotel, formerly known as the Old Post Office—was going to have a special menu for the first presidential debate between its namesake and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Surprisingly, the menu was not lopsided: $29 each for “Trump Sliders,” served with pickles and smoked ketchup (no Heinz, despite its production in the battleground state of Ohio), and “Hillary Hummus,” which arrived in a deep stone bowl accompanied by a comically large boat of potato chips.
Okay, so the hummus was a bit bland—and who even serves it with potato chips instead of pita crisps?—and pours of whiskey were still nearly twice what most bars would offer, but this was a big night for Donald Trump‘s newest luxury hotel.
The other item on the special menu was the “Benjamin beer silver bucket,” offering unlimited “America” beers—Anheuser-Busch’s temporary rebranding of Budweiser—between 8 and 11 PM for $100 per person. As the hotel typically sells Budweiser for $7 a bottle, one would have had to drink 14.3 beers in that short window, or 4.8 per hour, just to break even. Despite a waitress saying several customers had ordered the bucket, no one in the lobby bar appeared to be stacking up America Heavy empties. Also, the menu printed the beer’s name as “Amerrica,” with two r’s. Not great.
A Trump rally this was not, though. There were no “Make America Great Again” caps or souvenir-shop T-shirts emblazoned with the Declaration of Independence to be found, but it was a very pro-Trump crowd nonetheless. Mickael Damelincourt, the hotel’s managing director, estimated the crowd at about 350. At first he compared the scene to Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when the hotel bar’s four televisions show college and professional football games. But the bar doesn’t show football with sound. On Monday night, all four screens were tuned to Fox News Channel and the lobby’s speaker system carrying the network’s audio.
The Trump fans had a few high moments early on, when their candidate slammed Clinton over her about-face on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Trump’s defense of his excitement for the mid-2000s housing collapse—”That’s called business, by the way”—was a modest laugh line. And he got his biggest cheer from the bar crowd when he said he’d release his income-tax return in exchange for the emails deleted from the private server she used while serving as secretary of state.
But after 90 minutes, it was the roughly 10 percent of guests who supported Clinton who walked out victorious. Once Clinton started raking Trump on his refusal to release his taxes, his record on fair housing, his denial for his support of the Iraq War, his promotion of false rumors about President Obama‘s birth, and his public comments about women, more of the cheers came from the clusters of Clinton fans who were watching the debate on enemy territory.
“How many push-ups can you do?” Jack Nargil, who works in the city’s hospitality industry, yelled at the TVs when Trump, struggling with a case of the sniffles, accused Clinton of lacking the stamina to serve as president. “We are great, dummy!”
Nargil, who described himself as a “very political” person, insisted he wasn’t watching at Trump’s hotel in search of a fight, but he clearly enjoyed the setting. “I thought I’d get a kick out of it,” he said.
Samia Yusef, who also works in hospitality, cheered and pumped her fist during Clinton’s strongest moments, especially after the Democratic nominee brought up Alicia Machado, a winner of Trump’s Miss Universe pageant who says Trump insulted her after she gained weight.
“I’m a proud American Muslim,” Yusef, a naturalized citizen from Ethiopia, said after the debate. “I’m open to anything. I came here to support her.”
As Trump supporters thinned out, their last applause line came for the venue itself, when Trump plugged the hotel during a rebuttal to Clinton’s charge that he did not pay contractors who worked on some of his other properties. “We’re opening up on Pennsylvania Avenue, right next to the White House,” he said. “So if I don’t get there one way, I’m going to get to Pennsylvania Avenue another [way].”
After the debate, DC resident Akili West hung by the bar and posed for photos with a group of friends. “I came with an open mind and I’m leaving about 50-50,” he said. But West, who said he works for a renewable-energy firm, betrayed his leanings after thinking about some of the specifics, especially on Trump’s attempts to claim Obama is not a natural-born US citizen, which continued for five years after the president published his birth certificate in 2011. “Five years? Come on.”
Clinton hasn’t earned West’s vote yet. While he says Trump’s embrace of “stop-and-frisk” policing is troubling for him and his 16-year-old son, he’s also concerned about a speech Clinton gave in 1996 in which she referred to some African-American youths as “super-predators.”
“I’m also looking at Jill Stein,” West said.
Trump’s backers, despite ending the night rather quietly, tried to hedge the debate as a success for their guy. “I thought he won but he could’ve won bigger,” said Tim Anderson, a health-care professional from Minnesota. “He held his temper. I was getting more angry than he was.”
“This is President Trump’s hotel,” he said.
Not that he’s staying there, though. “$700 a night,” he said before heading back to his more modest accommodations in Northern Virginia.