The animosity between the press and President Trump has reached a fever pitch in recent days. Much of the grudge match stems from access, or lack thereof, between the President and the press.
This week, there was an outcry from journalists as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hand selected certain outlets to join him in an off camera press conference. Trump regularly shucks his pool reporters, the members of the White House press designated to cover his every movement, so he can dine or golf in privacy. The practice of ditching the press pool is not exclusive to Trump, but highly controversial and frowned upon in journalist circles.
Last night, Trump went dark on the press again, leaving the White House with a pool reporter in tow who did not know where the President was going or what he was doing. From last night’s report:
Pool was escorted onto the South Lawn driveway at 7:32 PM, where we boarded vans in the presidential motorcade. Motorcade rolled out from the WH grounds at 8:14 PM. Destination unknown. POTUS has no public events on his schedule today.
The president was heading to his new flagship property in D.C., the Trump Hotel, for a private dinner at the BLT Steakhouse inside. Once the president arrived at the location, the reporter who was on assignment to cover him, Jordan Fabian of The Hill, was not let into the building and had to wait in the van outside for the remainder of the dinner, without a guest list or details of what was happening inside.
Inside the restaurant, I was seated at a table I had booked hours earlier next to where Trump would be dining, based on a tip from a trusted source. I was ready to tell the story no one else would get to see and was personally fascinated to observe how a restaurant prepares for a president — and how Trump interacts when he believes no press are present.
The night was a wild one. Here is what happens when President Trump goes to dinner.
12:01 PM Saturday, February 25th: I received a tip from a well informed source that Trump would be dining at the BLT Steakhouse inside his Trump hotel at approximately 6 PM that evening. I had seen the president dine in the restaurant before following a campaign event held at the property in October. I assumed he would take his regular table, a circular velvet one in the back on the second level of the steakhouse. I called and made a reservation for the balcony level. I wagered that if the president did not show up, at least we would get some nice pop-overs.
5:50 PM: Arrival at the Trump Hotel. One can instantly see there is heightened security. Intimidating, non-hotel staff guard the entry of the hotel, and two Secret Service members with earpieces stand outside the restaurant, observing those who enter. However, the lobby area and the restaurant remain open to the public. People freely come in and out of the building.
Inside the restaurant, on the first level, an uncommon guest is having a cocktail. It’s Nigel Farage, the Brexit leader and Trump ally, who is sitting at a table with three other people. Nigel is on what looks like a serious phone call. Our party is seated at our table upstairs, but it is rather clear that the entire staff is on edge.
6:15 PM: Our waiter, a very courteous man named Ivan, introduces himself. Behind him is a flurry of activity. The circular table I assumed Trump would be dining at is surrounded by staff, primping and preening it. A golden metal ‘Reserved’ sign sits atop it.
The managers of the property swoop in to look at the table every few minutes. They wear earpieces, which is odd for restaurant staff, and speak in rushed, hushed tones to each other. The occasional security person buzzes the area discretely. I ask Ivan if all this on-edge staff and security is normal. He plays it coy and merely says, “You’re in for a treat tonight.”
6:45 PM: Our bacon tower appetizer arrives. Highly recommended.
7:01 PM: Large men with earpieces enter the dining area. They are carrying black bags. They meticulously check the Trump table, looking underneath it and behind it, and quietly speak to one another and the staff. The managers are getting nervous, rocking and fidgeting in preparation. They nit-pick the service of their staff down to the finest detail. One waiter gets berated for having a dirty napkin on his tray. The general manager of the entire property arrives for an inspection and seems pleased, but on edge.
7:15 PM: Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and his wife walk up the stairs, past our table and are seated on the other side of the restaurant from the Trump table preparations. They are alone and dressed for a date night. Tillerson is wearing a blazer with no tie. The Secretary orders a martini and his wife orders what looks to be a Cosmo. They quietly chat with one another at their table. No major fanfare is made of their presence. Their waiter tends to them like any other customers.
7:27 PM: Security becomes less discrete. Armed men in black shirts with dogs sweep the Trump table. The highly trained dogs do not bother any of the diners but sniff where pointed furiously, in and around where Trump is to dine. Another group of Secret Service members arrive. This group is carrying very official-looking luggage, and they inspect the space. The upstairs dining area is now at full capacity. Each table of guests are beginning to take notice that this will not be a standard Saturday night dinner. I leave to use the restroom and find Secret Service sweeping the men’s bathroom on the first floor. I am wanded by polite security as I return upstairs to my table.
7:35 PM: Two large parties arrive. One is a birthday party, seated near the Trump table upstairs in the steakhouse. People bring in presents. One man carries a gift bag which reads “You Old F**k” on the side of it. The other large party sits on the lobby couches. Approximately 20 millennial-aged cohorts in evening attire. Among them seems to be Tiffany Trump, but I have not confirmed this detail yet.
The group gets rounds of drinks and saber champagne service. With this service, a man wheels a cart up to your party, rings a bell to get everyone’s attention and uses a long knife to open a bottle of champagne, in this case Veuve Clicquot. The group cheers. Upstairs in the steakhouse, Tillerson and his wife are still dining quietly by themselves.
8:05 PM: A relatively peaceful, packed dining area is thrown into minor chaos as the restaurant manager receives word that the Trump table will be needing extra settings. A well dressed, sweaty, earpiece-clad manager sprints by our table telling his staff “Six! Six! Six!” Extra place settings are rushed to the Trump table as staff buzz around it in frantic preparation.
8:17 PM: Without any announcement or indication, President Trump enters the hotel lobby which bears his name, flanked on all sides by the Secret Service. Shock and astonishment fill the guests in the room. The woman next to me screams “Is it him? It’s really him! Oh my God! This is like a dream!” Trump is rushed by fans in the lobby as he makes his way to the steakhouse. Secret Service makes a barrier for him, and the President waves and shakes hands on his way. The young crew are the first in line. Also waiting in line as the President arrives is Nigel Farage.
8:25 PM: The President gets up and walks across the restaurant to his Secretary of State’s table. The President kisses Tillerson’s wife Renda, and he and Tillerson make small talk. They laugh and speak jovially for a few minutes as dinner guests who had been sitting next to Tillerson look on in stunned amazement. Another woman tells Trump it’s her birthday and gets a selfie. The woman tells me emotionally afterward that she had no idea Trump would be here. She booked the birthday dinner a month ago and said meeting Trump here was, “like meeting Walt Disney in Disneyland.”
8:30 PM: Trump leaves the Tillersons to their date night and heads back to his table. I get ahead of him and squeeze in one question, asking the President if he will be attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this year. “No,” he says with a smirk, “You like that?” The crowd around me cheers in agreement as Trump sits down with his party.
I asked Trump if he would be attending the White House Correspondents Dinner.
He said: “No. Do you like that?”
People cheered behind me. pic.twitter.com/5uc6kAM0FI
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) February 26, 2017
8:45 PM: Trump is served his entree. According to a waiter, who wished to remain anonymous:
“The President ordered a well-done steak. An aged New York strip. He ate it with catsup as he always does. The sides and appetizers on the table were shared. Three jumbo shrimp cocktails were delivered before the meal. At one point, the President looked at his watch and remarked ”They are filming ‘Saturday Night Live’ right now. Can’t wait to see what they are gonna do to me this week.“ It was hard to serve him because he is so funny and relaxed, it makes you laugh.”
Trump talks jovially with his guests for the next two hours. His iconic hand motions fill the space as dinner is served.
9:31 PM: Tillerson and his wife cross the restaurant and enter the Secret Service barrier of Trump’s table. The Secretary of State makes small talk with Nigel Farage and the Trump family. The Tillersons say their goodnights to the party and leave the steakhouse to cheers and handshakes from other guests. I am told by restaurant staff that Trump picked up their tab for dinner.
10:14 PM: Trump and his party get up to leave. The president is stopped momentarily for selfies and handshakes. Discretely, Trump can be seen handing cash to one of the latino busboys for his table. The president handed the young man a $100 bill.
The President exits the restaurant and addresses a long line of adoring visitors waiting for him in the hotel lobby. Trump signs some items, takes some photos and pauses just before leaving, joining in on a “USA” chant while pumping his fist.
10:20 PM: Trump exits the building.
11:01 PM: Nigel Farage can be found wandering the lobby of the hotel with a large glass of red wine. His teeth are wine-stained, and the British politician is happily swaying and speaking with anyone who approaches him. I ask what it is like to come to the United States and have the President ask you to dinner. Farage says:
“Well it’s really quite wonderful. But as I’ve gotten to know Donald, it really just does not surprise me. You know what amazes me about your President? He is a regular bloke. Truly. Just a normal chap. Upstairs at dinner, he spoke to the table like any regular guy out to dine with friends and family. There is no pretension at all.”
I pressed Farage for further details on what the president spoke about at dinner, and the Brexit leader just laughed and said it was nothing that interesting, with a smirk and a wink.
That is what it is like to have dinner next to President Trump.