There were no specials or drinking games at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday, but the cavernous lobby was hopping all the same. Two TVs were tuned to Fox News, one to CNN, and a fourth to the closing minutes of the men’s college basketball game between No. 19 North Carolina and No. 20 Clemson. All attention, however, appeared to be on the hotel’s namesake as he prepared to deliver his first State of the Union address.
The crowd featured lots of middle-aged men in ill-fitting suits and women with plunging necklines. A large swath of the atrium was cordoned off for a private event. In one corner by the bar, where the cocktail menu’s prices can still cause gasps, far-right activists Jack Posobiec and Cassandra Fairbanks pre-gamed.
Posobiec regaled his buddies with a story about his political origins in a 2006 Senate race in Pennsylvania. More recently, he’s promoted conspiracy theories about Comet Ping Pong and slain Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, and once tried to undermine anti-Trump protesters by planting a “Rape Melania” sign in a crowd outside this very hotel. Tonight he joked about fellow alt-right traveler Mike Cernovich‘s bid to buy the remnants of Gawker.com.
The action picked up about 10 minutes before 9 PM, when Trump finally got in his limousine for the ride to the Capitol. “Trump leaving White House,” CNN’s lower-third graphic read, as the camera showed the President sitting and waiting for the car to go.
“Oh, come on, CNN,” Posobiec yelled, reacting to a sentence that read as if Trump had left the presidency. (For what it’s worth, Fox News’s graphic read “Trump leaving White House soon.”)
Sure enough, the crowd up front chuckled when a bartender fiddled with the cable and changed the television showing CNN to DirecTV’s movie-preview channel. CNN was restored a few minutes later, though as the speech drew near, only Fox’s audio played in the room.
When Trump finally entered the House chamber, his hotel’s bar was not unlike a frenzied sports bar–if the favored team held the ball for 90 minutes. There were cheers, whoops, and rounds of applause. But no one could film themselves enjoying the night. Patricia Tang, the hotel’s marketing director, stalked the lobby looking for would-be live-streamers and photographers, including Fairbanks, and ordering them to turn off their cameras.
The early line on Trump’s speech was that it was “conciliatory” and an “appeal for unity” because he made just enough references to “Democrats and Republicans.” The hotel-lobby crowd wasn’t pulled to the center: They jeered when the cameras cut to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. They cheered loudly when Trump touted the elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. The President’s anecdote about a boy who delivered US flags to military cemeteries as “why we proudly stand for the national anthem” was a huge applause line. His call “to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people”—a not-so-veiled shot at the Justice Department officials investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election—was greeted by a shout of “Release the memo.”
But those were the hits. States of the Union tend to be long affairs, and Trump’s was not an exception. The crowd thinned as the speech dragged on for 60, 70, 80 minutes. The private party in the back stayed lively, though. It was hard to spot boldface names inside the velvet ropes, just people sitting around tables stacked with glasses of wine, plates of charcuterie, and copies of Let Trump Be Trump, the book by Corey Lewandowski, the President’s first campaign manager, and conservative activist David Bossie. A signing seemed to be going on, though Lewandowski and Bossie were nowhere to be found. (A social-media search later revealed that Lewandowski was eating dinner at the BLT Prime restaurant inside the hotel; Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle was also there.)
Trump finally wrapped it up, and the bar switched back to its standard background EDM soundtrack before Fox’s pundits could start their postgame. Many patrons filtered out, though a large line formed in front of a table next to the check-in desk. Lewandowski and Bossie had finally appeared to sign their book.
As for Trump’s speech? Everyone in the lobby seemed to think it was great; the hotel, after all, shows up in FEC records like a 24/7 fundraiser for the President and his allies. The theme of the night was affirmation, plus the chance for encounters with random Trump-world figures. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, got to the hotel about 15 minutes after the speech ended; he headed straight for Lewandowski.