Former travel writer Zach Everson made a full time job out of following the ins and outs and who’s who of DC’s Trump hotel with his newsletter, 1100 Pennsylvania, over the past few years. Now, with Donald Trump out of office and the hotel’s lease up for sale again, Everson is moving on to a new beat. He recently joined Forbes, where he’ll be investigating money in politics (and starting a new newsletter called Checks & Imbalances). Few people have followed the Republican haven as closely as Everson, so we asked him about his best ‘spotted,’ that time he had dinner next to Trump, and what he thinks the future of the hotel will hold.
How did you end up covering the Trump hotel full-time in the first place?
I was a travel writer for over a decade and I had the assignment to cover the opening for Fox News’s website in the travel section. It was clearly different than any other hotel function I’d been to. None of them had a presidential candidate show up with his entourage and spend the time belittling his opponent. It just hit me that this was going to be a very different hotel than any other hotel I’d been to, and it was going to be the travel story in DC. [Later, while working on a story about the hotel for Conde Nast Traveler], I was just kind of looking online at pictures to see who was at the Trump hotel. If you had concerns that people who would want to influence the President were spending money at his business, you could see those concerns right before your eyes on Instagram. So I decided to stay with it.
How often did you actually hang out at the hotel?
Not often. They certainly knew who I was. Most of what I did was on social media. I would go down there often if I had an inkling something was going to happen. For example, there was a tip that the Romanian prime minister was there that led me to go down twice in one weekend. I did stay there for the Conde Nast Traveler piece. I spent a weekend there. That’s also my one and only time speaking to Donald Trump.
Tell me more about that!
This was early on in his presidency, April of 2017. I happened to book that weekend because it was the Science March. I went and got a massage—again, Conde Nast paid for all this. I went up to my room, and as I came down the elevator, there were very clearly Secret Service agents standing there. The manager was pacing about, and there were all sorts of last minute preparations being made. You could see the bannister being polished. It was very clear to me that that was not done for me. I went to dinner at BLT Prime, and I was given a seat on the rail, which we found out later is where they tried to put their better-looking people or more influential people. I guess being a travel writer got me the seat, because it definitely wasn’t power or looks.
So they knew you were there as a travel writer?
They absolutely knew I was there. I didn’t tell them. I just booked it under my name and when I showed up to check in, the manager of the hotel and the manager of the restaurant both came down and introduced themselves to me and give me their cards. It was very apparent they knew what I did. I talked to [hotel managing director] Mickael Damelincourt later about it, and he said that they have an attaché department that researches who their guests are going to be.
Anyway, I had this great seat, and sure enough I’m into my appetizer, and the President walks in and gets a standing ovation. At this point I’m like, ‘Alright, I have the lede to my article.’ Nobody left the restaurant the entire time he was there. That’s what I was there for, and it seemed like that’s what a lot of other people were paying, at least in part, for. I imagine servers there probably make less money when Trump’s there. I tried to be a good customer. I ordered more stuff than I really wanted.
As Trump left, people were yelling questions. There were all sorts of questions I could have asked him, but I just went with a simple, ‘What did you have for dinner tonight, sir?,’ which was obviously steak. I just wanted to see if you could talk to the President by staying in his hotel, and I was able to do that and it wasn’t difficult at all. Right place, right time, and loud voice.
You said the staff knew who you were. How did they treat you? I take it you weren’t banned or anything like that.
I’ve never been asked to leave. I’ve never been banned. There’s never been any problem. I know they’re watching me. I went in there once undercover with Inside Edition and they shot video of one of the bartenders immediately coming right up to me and greeting me. But they were always friendly. I also never approached a guest—that was one thing they didn’t care for.
When you did go to the hotel, what would you do? What would you be ordering? What would you be looking for?
The first thing was just: who’s there? There were so many times I’d go down there for one reason, and I’d see something totally different, like John Legere, the [now former] CEO of T-Mobile. Right after they announced the merger [with Sprint], he was down there talking to Corey Lewandowski. I would usually come in and walk around and grab a seat some place if I saw something that was worth looking at. Otherwise I’d just stand against the bar and look outwards. They had a Tempranillo that was pretty solid at about $16. I think they also had Four Roses bourbon at a pretty decent price point. The octopus was pretty good. The tartare was good. I had the burger once, it was delicious, but $30 for a burger, it better be delicious.
Who would you say is your best Trump hotel ‘spotted’?
Clearly Atiku Abubakar. I didn’t know him at the time. All of a sudden, this group walks in and they’re getting a very formal welcome. A lot of them have cell phones out, and they’re capturing video of what’s going on. [Turns out] that guy is running for president of Nigeria and the election is in 30 days, and yet somehow the Trump hotel in DC is a campaign stop. As I found out later, Atiku Abubakar had been the vice president of Nigeria, and at one point, he was also involved in [an international bribery] scandal here in the United States with a congressman named William Jefferson of Louisiana, who was known for having [$10,000 stacks of hundred-dollar bills] in his freezer. Reportedly, the State Department had barred Abubakar from entering the country for years. This was becoming an issue in the election in Nigeria. So what does he do? He books a trip to the Trump hotel. The pictures were all over the internet. I ended up picking up a ton of Nigerian followers on Twitter.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve observed at the hotel?
A lot of it was just the MAGA world, the whole sort of subculture that came up around Trump. They had their own celebrities. There was that designer, Andre Soriano, who made the MAGA dress. And I think in fashion, he is considered pretty much a nothing, but he was the MAGA fashion designer and was accorded all of the privileges that go along with that. People were just thrilled to see him there.
Who would you say were the most regular big names?
‘Big’ is going to do a lot of work here. Eric Bolling, formerly of Fox News, was there all the time. He was like the norm of the hotel. He had his regular spots. He would sit there and he clearly wanted to be seen. He liked to be glad-handing people out there. Matt Gaetz was certainly a regular. I was down there once with a friend, and it was one of the rare times that Matt Gaetz was in Trump’s doghouse, he had just voted against him on a bill. I think it had to do with war powers. He and Lewandowski grabbed a table right at the bar, right in the middle, and it was almost like a rope line, people coming up for picture after picture after picture with Gaetz.
You’ve arguably followed the Trump hotel on social media closer than anyone. What would be your biggest takeaways?
It was just picture after picture after picture of junior Capitol Hill staffers or travelers from Iowa: ‘Oh, just had a wonderful time with Rudy as we were catching up.’ It’s like, you didn’t. You went up and said, ‘Can I get a picture with you, Mayor Giuliani?’ It was just so puffed up. If there’s just one image that sears itself into my mind, it’s just a young white person sitting in the lobby of the Trump hotel with a glass of Champagne, staring off into middle distance, and having some sort of insipid saying about ‘just having a little me time’ or ‘thinking about how we can make America great again.’ That is just the archetypal post.
What would you say was your biggest Trump hotel scoop?
It wasn’t specific to the hotel, but it was probably that the Trump Org was selling soap with the White House on it with ‘Trump hotel’ over it. There was one time Trump was there, but in between two planned meetings, he stopped in with a group of evangelicals who prayed and put hands on him. It was with [televangelist] Paula White. That wasn’t even on his schedule. If somebody hadn’t posted it on social media and I hadn’t seen it, you would never have known that Donald Trump was there. That was the only time I saw him during his presidency standing behind a Trump-branded podium. There wasn’t even a presidential seal on there.
You kept a tally of how often certain people went to the hotel?
Oh yeah. Trump had 37 confirmed members of his Cabinet throughout his presidency. We have photos of 28 of them at the hotel. That is astounding. Sixty-five Republicans served in the Senate during Trump’s tenure, 35 of them were either seen at the hotel or spent campaign funds there. And representatives from 33 different governments have been spotted there.
What’s your sense of what the biggest story that connected to the hotel was over these past four years?
The Ukraine scandal. So many of those meetings took place there. I was told Rudy Giuliani was hanging with these two guys who you should probably pay attention to. So I had my eye out. I had already looked for pictures of Rudy with Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas before their names came up. It turns out I’d actually already published one. I didn’t know it at the time, but I published a photo of Parnas standing there with Trump on the stage at a fundraiser in the ballroom a year before Parnas was on anybody’s map.
What’s the scene at the hotel been like since Biden took office?
It’s empty. I would go days without seeing any new pictures posted on Instagram. The pandemic doesn’t help, but there was just nothing going on there. I haven’t been there [since the start of the pandemic], but accounts from people who have been there bore that out. Since Trump’s no longer president, you’re no longer going to go there to see Kevin McCarthy types. They’re not out there either, not as often. The telltale sign will be looking at campaign finance spending over the next year and seeing how many events are there. Jim Jordan dropped $20,000 in campaign funds at the Trump hotel during Trump’s presidency. What’s he going to spend there now?
What do you see as the future of the hotel? It sounds like it’s back on the market again.
Welcome to the Waldorf Astoria. Even before Trump was elected president, the money in that hotel just didn’t make sense. The break-even point is just too high for what they need to recoup the investment. And now you throw in everything else that’s happened. It’s located in a city where most people despise Trump, so you’re not going to get the locals down there. According to the New York Times’ reporting, it lost money even when Trump was president. Well now that he’s not president, they’re not going to bring in any more.
Why did you decide to retire 1100 Pennsylvania now?
The plan had always been to keep it going until I got a full-time staff job. Honestly, I’m surprised it lasted more than 100 issues. [Forbes] was just a great opportunity. As a freelancer, I’ve found that my reporting is better when I’m working with editors. The other frustration was I would have stories that I thought were decent scoops, and they wouldn’t get any attention because they originated on a newsletter. Forbes offered resources, and it offers an audience. I have LexisNexis access.
You noted in your last newsletter that so many journalists from established publications are leaving to start their own Substacks, and you’re basically doing the opposite.
I have no complaints about Substack. I think it’s a lot better move if you are more of an opinion writer/columnist than a journalist, and if you already have a dedicated following. When you’re a journalist who doesn’t have a well known name and you’re starting off at a newsletter like that, it is a really tough sell.
In your new role, do you think you’ll continue to cover the hotel at all?
Absolutely. That is part of the beat. It is expanding what I’m doing to cover Republican and Democrats.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.