WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s new luxury hotel stands less than a mile from the White House, on the site of the landmark Old Post Office. Earlier this week, the GOP nominee took some time off the campaign trail to mark the opening of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, drawing confusion from some in the political class.
Why, pundits wondered, would he take such a break 13 days before an election he was still trying to win?
A poll released that same day showed Democratic rival Hillary Clinton holding a commanding 14-point lead.
But on Friday, a political bombshell dropped that had Trump backers visiting his hotel to celebrate not the newly revamped property, but the Republican candidate’s seemingly resuscitated campaign.
FBI Director James Comey shocked the world Friday afternoon by sending a letter to Congress that said new emails were found in a separate case involving former New York representative Anthony Weiner, who is under investigation for illicit text messages he allegedly sent to a 15-year-old girl. Weiner, who also ran for New York City mayor in 2013, is the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Clinton who she’s referred to as a “second daughter.”
The announcement came 11 days before US voters cast their ballots on November 8, breaking the Justice Department’s tradition of not taking any action that can be seen as influencing an election 60 days out. The Clinton camp has demanded the FBI release all the information it has, and Trump, to no surprise, has been gleeful, calling the probe “bigger than Watergate” and declaring that “a great day in our campaign just got better.”
With all this going on, this reporter decided to visit Trump’s hotel to sample the mood. Despite the fraught emotions surrounding this election, all was quiet outside the building, without a protester in sight. Inside the 1899 building’s opulent atrium were people from around the country — some associated with extremist fringe groups who have backed Trump’s candidacy — who said they felt the prospect of a Trump presidency just got the boost it desperately needed.
“I think he will now win by the largest landslide ever,” said Joe Biggs, a radio personality for InfoWars.com, a site ran by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who just this week railed against “the Jewish mafia.” In December, Trump appeared on Jones’s show and told him “your reputation is amazing.”
Talking with The Times of Israel, Biggs, who proclaims himself a member of the alt-right movement, called Clinton “the most corrupt, inhumane, sadistic, nasty, murderous human being in the world. If anybody deserves to be in jail, it’s that nasty, worthless human being, and I’ll take that to the grave.”
The alt-right is an amorphous designation that includes among its ranks an array of white supremacist groups, “white nationalists” and neo-Nazis. A recent Anti-Defamation League report found a dramatic spike in anti-Semitic harassment of journalists carried out by self-identified alt-right Trump backers.
“Bullshit,” Biggs told me. “Trump is not a racist. I come to these places and see they’ve hired tons of African American people. In fact, there’s an African guy working at the bar right now who came here because he loves Trump, he loves what he’s doing.”
Biggs was staying at Trump Hotel this weekend to attend the March for America rally on Saturday, in which Trump die-hards walked from the Capitol to the White House protesting the “corruption in Washington & the Clinton crime machine,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
The demonstration was organized by Scott Binsack, an online radio host and erstwhile fugitive who has an extensive criminal record and was recently released from serving three years in Pennsylvania state prison on several counts of theft and fraud-related charges. To put together the march, he supposedly raised roughly $10,000 on the crowdsourcing platform GoFundMe.com.
Binsack, who was in the grand lobby, argued against charges that Trump supporters have reignited anti-Semitism by saying Israel played “a major factor” in his decision to support the candidate. Trump understands Israel can be “a blueprint” for America’s own security, he said, “especially with walls.”
Last month, Trump had an hour-long meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Manhattan while the latter was in town for the UN General Assembly. (Netanyahu also had a separate meeting with Clinton.) The Trump campaign released a statement saying the two discussed “at length Israel’s successful experience with a security fence that helped secure its borders.”
A husband and wife, a mother and daughter
Others inside the swanky hotel atrium, which includes stores selling luxury goods from around the world, like Brioni made-to-measure suits, included a husband and wife on an annual vacation and a mother and daughter who came to celebrate a birthday.
Albert Espinoza and his wife Evelyn decided they wanted to visit the nation’s capital for their anniversary, and that the opening of Trump’s new hotel gave them an added incentive.
Espinoza, who comes from Calexico, California, a town on the Mexican border, told The Times of Israel he was concerned Trump’s campaign may have been faltering but called the new email probe launched hours earlier a “game changer” that will turn undecideds distrustful of Clinton.
“Hopefully it does,” he said.
When asked why he supported Trump, Espinoza cited a number of factors, including the candidate’s firm stance on building a wall along the US-Mexican border, but also mentioned Trump’s stated support for the Jewish state. “I like that he’s a strong supporter of Israel,” he said. “They’re a strong ally, you know, so why not defend them?”
Trump has repeatedly professed that he “loves Israel,” though he also caused some dismay when he once vowed to be “sort of a neutral guy” on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Another duo cited an affinity for Israel. Shelly Perry brought her mother, Pat Gardes, to the hotel for coffee and dessert in honor of the mother’s 83rd birthday. Gardes, from nearby McLean, Virginia, said she has “really liked Donald Trump from day one, and I watch the news daily. I like and agree with what he’s saying. I can’t even think of a thing I disagree on as to what he’s been saying.”
Her daughter Perry said she was supporting Trump, too, but admitted “frustration” with “things that he’s said and things that he’s done.”
Grades claimed she went to Israel with her husband for 10 days in 1983, because they “just wanted to visit the Holy Land. So I care about Israel. Our president didn’t seem to care that much, and I think Donald Trump will.”
The two of them were more skeptical than the other interviewees that the new emails probe will change the trajectory of the election. “I think something is going to happen today, and then something is going to happen the day after,” Perry said. “I mean, it’s just so crazy all the things that are happening in this campaign season.”