Can Trump Survive Washington?

Lieutenant Colonel Jason K. Fettig, director of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band, raised his baton at precisely 9:43 a.m. on Friday morning, signaling that all the pageantry was at the ready for Donald Trump to take the oath of office. From my perch, a few feet from the band, I could turn around to see the vast panoply of the various colored seating sections and an ocean of white faces; the huge media apparatus; and the blocked-off areas for public viewing that stretched to the Washington Monument. For long-time Washingtonians like myself, the Inauguration is almost sacred and represents not only the history and continuity of our democracy, but also the hard-earned values of precision, pride in professionalism, and countless hours of work that bestow the new president with the most beautiful, memorable ceremony possible.

It wasn’t long, however, before Trump took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. In the course of sixteen minutes, he degraded Washington, insulted the four former presidents seated mere feet away, and basically pissed on everyone’s parade. Trump disrespected expertise. And while that spirit largely carried him to his unprecedented victory, it merely underscored his learning curve in Washington—a place where disrespecting expertise is a cardinal sin.

There are, I recognize, many different “Washingtons” thrown around in commentary these days. Most carry negative connotations, but those of us who live here, and have lived here through both Republican and Democratic administrations, sense something truly different this time. We get the coarsening of society ushered in by the Kardashians and their ilk; the slavish attention to monetizing and branding even the lint in your navel; and certainly the fury at what seem to be part-time congressional legislators, who fly in and out of here from protected, safely gerrymandered districts and thus not obliged to solve urgent national issues. But we still harbor a deep respect for professionalism, for understanding the intricacies of policy, whether foreign or domestic, and certainly for common decency.

That is how we have always lived together—in a complicated but vibrant city that has used Barack Obama’s presidency to become far more inclusive and sophisticated than much of this deeply divided country. This is why I was so taken aback after leaving the Capitol. As I walked past a homeless shelter, a Trump supporter called out to some homeless person, “You better move to Canada because you don’t have a president any more.” That prompted a white, pony-tailed woman resident to curse him and yell back, “You won’t either in a couple of weeks!” Then the Trump man started chanting, “Whose street? Trump’s street!” A chorus of other Trump people quickly joined in, yelling “Trump’s street” until they got to the corner.

Washington does not behave like that. We try to get along. A majority of Washington’s population is African-American, and its class of affluent black professionals is rising. The greater D.C. area has long boasted the highest percentage of college-educated women in America, and as Trump pointed out, Washington anchors one of the richest areas in the entire United States—the result, of course, of the Republican-led effort to privatize many former military and governmental functions, which has led to the proliferation of countless lobbying firms arising in their defense. The consequence is that Washington today is much richer than it was when I moved here, in 1989, and the U.S. taxpayer foots a bigger bill. No question the swamp could stand draining, but even Trump’s ego is smaller than the forces that could be arrayed against him. His crude in-your-face manner of speaking, without having all the facts, feels downright dangerous—not just for us, but for him, too.

In D.C. it is access, not money, that defines power. And permanent Washingtonians are already steeling themselves for the altered reality of the Trump era. There are so many weird things happening that no one, Republican or Democrat, knows what to make of it all.

First, no recent president has ever decided to stay in Washington after leaving office. Jackie Kennedy gave up on Georgetown shortly after J.F.K.’s death; the crowds were too bothersome, and so she moved to New York. Now, the Obamas are renting a house in the Kalorama section of tony Massachusetts Heights, just a few blocks up the street from Washington’s largest mosque, which is located on the embassy row section of Massachusetts Ave. On Fridays, especially, scores of Muslim cab drivers park their taxis all the way up that street while they pray. Now, the Secret Service is likely to enrage them and make their lives hell. Two new guardhouses have been just put up on the Obama’s rented Tudor style house. The day I walked my pug by, a fancy fine arts moving van was just pulling out.

Also notably, around the corner and a few blocks away, is Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s new place: a $5.5 million dollar un-landscaped stucco rectangle raised off the street with an iron fence, supposedly pretty inside, but with almost no backyard for three small children to play in. One of the reasons both families share the same neighborhood is that the Secret Service likes to be near easy getaway roads in case of attack. Rock Creek Park is a stone’s throw.

Washington’s well-defined social life, it seems, is also about to take a new turn, but another puzzling question is whether or not Trump is even really going to call Washington home. Will he just use the White House as a branch of Trump Tower, especially as Melania Trump stays behind in New York until their 10-year-old son, Baron, finishes his school year? Nevertheless, entertaining is a contact sport here and a necessary part of doing business, especially for certain embassies. And so it goes on, albeit with new players suddenly important.

Last week, before the inauguration, Lebanese born Rima Al-Sabah, the relentless hostess wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, who makes a practice of cozying up to the wives of high U.S. officials and would probably rather be stoned than have to go back to live in Kuwait, threw a party for the newcomers; her big catch was Rudy Giuliani. The elegant French embassy had to quickly cultivate a whole new guest list; their large soiree last week even included the uber-right president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, who infamously arm-twists Republican candidates into signing a pledge not to raise tax rates. Grover Norquist and the French embassy is kind of an oxymoron.

Then, there is The Resistance, as some neocons and traditional Rockefeller Republicans, or prominent conservatives like George Will and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, like to call themselves. Frum also threw a party last week. He and Will are leaders of the G.O.P. group that signed that Never Trump pledge. They are very personae non grata.

Until this year, the chicest inaugural bash was always the black-tie event co-hosted by Republican Buffy Cafritz and Democrats Vernon and Ann Jordan, along with philanthropists Vicki and Roger Sant. But this year was so unsettling that it was cancelled. Others, however, see opportunities. Flamboyant redhead Georgette Mosbacher, whom the Bush 41s were very cool towards when she was married to the late Texas oil-man and Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, is now very much back on the scene. That scene is predominantly white and male. “Very Aryan. So many men, white guys in boxy Brooks Brothers suits,” a social professional told me of the new administration figures she’s met. “I find the men the mainstay. The women seem like little briefcases that come to Washington with them.” This person clearly was not referring to the First Family.

Two months later, some still can’t get over her defeat. A couple of weeks ago, according to someone familiar with the situation, Hillary herself came to town for the dedication of a new diplomacy museum at the State Department. A group of close girlfriends took her to dinner at Café Milano in Georgetown, where they proceeded to have a long dinner, at which I’m told, she appeared to be heartbroken and grieving. Clinton, this person said, was unsure about whether she would sell the family home in Washington. Bill, I am told, apparently cannot get over the defeat either, and constantly replays the numbers of lost counties in various states in phone calls to past aides. (A spokesperson for the Clinton campaign did not respond to request for comment.)

Café Milano is one of those places that is completely bipartisan, where both parties have parties, and the guest lists are traditionally mixed. This year, the former ambassador to Barbados under Bush 41, Mary Ourisman, of Washington and Palm Beach, married to the very rich car dealer Manfred Ourisman, hosted the “Inaugural Afterglow Party” event there, along with Senator Roy Blunt and his wife, Abigail, and a group of Republican senators. There were lots of glamorous Republican women in attendance, mixed with a sprinkling of Democrats, and much excitement that no matter their doubts about Trump, Republicans were back in power. A new Washington-Palm Beach axis seemed to be emerging.

My old friend Bob Monahan, a well-connected Pennsylvania Republican, deemed the inaugural address both “elegant and inclusive,” as he put it to me. “What do you mean by inclusive”, I asked. He cited the fact that in Palm Beach during Thanksgiving, Trump had the staff of Mar-a-Lago cook a big turkey meal for all the Secret Service and security detail. “They love him.”

Nevertheless, Fox News anchor Bret Baier raised his eyebrows in response to the speech, calling Trump “a fair and balanced eviscerator.” Nearby, former South Dakota G.O.P. Senator Larry Pressler echoed the concerns of so many establishment Republicans who are staunch free traders. Some 70 percent of South Dakota wheat is sold for export, he explained to me. If Trump starts cutting back trade deals, that truly alters things. He voted for Clinton, he said, but the Democratic pal with him voted for Trump. “We need change,” he said.

Elsewhere, while declaring Melania’s celestial blue inaugural outfit stunning and Ivanka’s white pantsuit too far out, the wife of a prominent Democratic senator despaired over the power of Trumpian optics while making a shrewd observation. “We’re all going to tune in to see the kids, the clothes. He’s our reality TV President—he knows this,” she said. “He’s producing this. He’s our Celebrity Apprentice president, and we’re all going to watch this new series every day.”

By the time I left the party, after midnight, buses filled with women who had come to march against Trump—a palpable symbol that there are two completely distinct groups in this country who both fervently believe they are right and who both believe that America belongs to them—had started to arrive. Startlingly, the vast, peaceful woman’s march that went global was off limits at Trump’s first press briefing. Rather, press secretary Sean Spicer, at times resembling a Saturday Nigh Live character, flatly contradicted all visual evidence of the numbers who attended the inauguration, apparently the president’s most important preoccupation. So Trump’s first day in office was consumed with picking a fight with the press just a few hours after hearing pleas for unity and praying at the National Cathedral. Trump’s constant self-referencing during a speech to the C.I.A. in front of their sacred memorial wall so offended the sense of professionalism and decorum of former C.I.A. chief John Brennan that he issued a highly unusual press release stating, “Donald Trump ought to be ashamed of himself.” Trump answered with a tweet that his speech got a standing ovation.

This article was originall published by Vanity Fair, January 23, 2017


Look for Maureen’s book, Vulgar Favors, the basis for the FX true crime series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, from creator Ryan Murphy and starring Edgar Ramirez, Penelope Cruz, Darren Criss, and Ricky Martin and coming January 2018.

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