It was 1am at Cafe Milano and the party was in full swing. Ivanka Trump, regal in a black-and-silver gown, dazzled a succession of admirers while her husband, Jared Kushner, smiled and nibbled on a slice of margarita pizza. Presidential advisers Kellyanne Conway and Gary Cohn stood just steps away, happily chatting with billionaires, politicians and ambassadors at the exclusive post-Alfalfa dinner gathering last month.
On the surface, it looked like a classic Washington get-together of power brokers, the A-list of the A-list. But a closer reading showed something different: For every person who cozied up to the Trump insiders, there was another who quietly avoided them – not just Democrats, but Republicans, too.
This is something new. The conventional wisdom of Washington states that civility and engagement are always a good thing: the city’s establishment benefits from the ideas and excitement of a new administration, and the administration profits from the experience and support of political veterans.
But, no surprise, President Donald Trump has upended all the traditional rules of socialising in the nation’s capitalThe president and many of his closest advisers are contemptuous and suspicious of the Washington establishment,whom they dismiss as the “swamp.” And the city’s social elite, normally quick to embrace a new chief executive and his inner circle, are judgmental, wary and afraid of being, as one Republican put it, “tainted for life.”
“This establishment is trying to reject Trump and his family like white blood cells chasing off an infection,” says conservative anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist, who has lived in Washington for 33 years. And Trump loyalists, he says, see little value in rubbing shoulders with people who didn’t want anything to do with them before the election. (So there was considerable surprise when the White House announced that the president would attend this year’s Gridiron Club dinner.)
The private dilemma, circa 2018, is this: Do you invite Trump and his team to your party? Do they want to come? Do you want them to come? Or do you sit out the next few years?
“The constant thing you hear from the left is, ‘You can’t normalise Trump,’ ” says Norquist. Presumably, that means not extending the social courtesies accorded past presidents, but that’s something most of Washington’s establishment is loath to do out of respect, at a minimum, for the office of the presidency.
The Trumps, for their part, seem to want not just respect and courtesy, but personal allegiance. One Republican hostess, eager to introduce Trump family members to some of her friends, was told that they were only interested in people who are “loyal” – a term rarely used to describe social acquaintances.
A middle ground, some place between normalising and pandering, seems elusive at the moment. The White House did not respond to requests for comment, and most of the social elite declined to speak for the record for fear of giving offence. It’s as if everyone’s trying to walk a tightrope in four-inch Louboutin stilettos.
There was a moment when Ivanka and Jared seemed like the perfect bridge between the White House and social Washington. They were young, glamorous and chic, the ultimate power couple in a city full of them. They had impeccable manners and were eager to engage. They hosted small dinners at their Kalorama home for members of Congress, administration officials and other prominent
They were flooded with invitations but accepted just a few: the Alfalfa dinner, a comfortable gathering because so many of the members and VIP guests are from New York. A bipartisan beach party at journalist Lally Weymouth’s Hamptons mansion. A dinner at the Kuwaiti embassy honouring first lady Melania Trump. A few embassy receptions. They were poised to be the toast of the town.
That mutual admiration was short-lived. The couple apparently became increasingly disenchanted with Washington after the Russia scandal broke, surprised by what they considered vicious, unfair attacks. Whatever goodwill they felt toward the establishment has reportedly evaporated, and the two are rarely seen at social events outside the president’s orbit.
Meanwhile, the A-list was surprised by what some describe as the self-importance and humourless of Team Trump. “This is the first administration,” said one fundraiser, “where you can’t tease.”
One exception: Kellyanne Conway, who is charming, outgoing, and from several accounts, fun to be around. Trump’s victorious campaign manager and now ubiquitous talking head is one of the few White House officials regularly spotted at Washington parties. Last year, she attended the Gridiron Club dinner, receptions at the British, French and Kuwaiti embassies, Weymouth’s Hamptons bash, and other exclusive A-list gatherings.
Conway has lived in Washington for years and knows plenty of the political players. She genuinely wants to be liked, says one prominent Republican hostess, and “is making a sincere effort” to reach out and engage with people outside conservative circles. She rarely talks politics after dark and avoids confrontation at the dinner table, according to fellow guests.
Why the charm offensive? Some observers note that Conway is one of the few administration officials likely to stay in Washington after Trump leaves, and is quietly building relationships for the long game. (She and her husband bought an $8 million mansion last spring in Massachusetts Avenue Heights.)
Even so, some hosts and guests steer clear. It’s not that they don’t like Conway. It’s that they don’t trust her, believing that she would throw any of them under the bus if the president asked her to.
The closest to the classic Washington model – a high-profile administration couple welcomed with open arms and happy to dive in – is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his wife, Hilary Geary Ross.
The two landed here after decades of A-list life in New York and Palm Beach and already had a number of friends when they arrived last year: Republican hostesses Buffy Cafritz and Nancy Brinker, for example, held a ladies’ lunch in Hilary’s honour last spring, one of several parties to welcome the couple.
The Rosses are very rich, fun, and like being a part of the surrounding cultural and social life. They accept most invitations, or host sit-down dinners at their Washington mansion, which is filled with priceless paintings from their Magritte collection.
One recent dinner included Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kushner, Fox News’s Bret Baier, actress Lynda Carter and a number of other Washington notables. “They entertain very well,” says one guest.
The transition to the nation’s capital was easy for the Rosses: They are older, with a traditional approach to social engagement – dinners, charities, and the like.
They follow the unspoken social rules of this town: Political differences are expected, but no personal attacks. Be nice, be civil, be discreet, be above the fray.
Washington has been less kind to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, actress Louise Linton. The latter has managed, in six months, to draw unflattering comparisons to Marie Antoinette and Cruella De Vil, a rare twofer.
Then there was the social media mockery of the elbow-length black leather gloves she wore while posing with a sheet of dollar bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Earlier this month, Linton apologised for her missteps while posing for Elle magazine – wearing only a long sweater and designer heels.
“Tone deaf,” sniffed one local hostess. Translation: Flaunting your wealth may be acceptable in Hollywood or even on the Upper East Side, but it’s not appropriate in Washington. Especially on the taxpayer’s dime.
Some Washington insiders are convinced that Trump will be a one-term president and his administration will be gone in three years or less. So they keep their heads down and “entertain around them,” says one Republican.
Still, Trump is the president. And having the president of the United States at any event confers exceptional status and prestige.
So it was a very big deal when the president and first lady attended the Ford’s Theatre gala in early June. The Trumps had hosted a St. Patrick’s Day reception, the Easter Egg Roll and other events in the White House, but this was their first big social outing on the town and a huge get for the historic theatre.
Why Ford’s? The gala is bipartisan and, more important, not political. Republican and Democratic presidents have attended the event for 40 years,and trusted friends promised Trump that he would be treated with pomp and respect.
“The event is a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, his love for the performing arts, and his belief that the United States is a country more united by our commonalities than divided by differences,” says Ford’s Director Paul Tetreault.
The Trumps brought along a few VIP guests: Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Ivanka and Jared, and a number of GOP lawmakers. The night raised US$2 million (NZ$2.77m) for the theatre, money unlikely to have been donated had the Trumps not attended. Ford’s cancelled the 2016 gala after Barack Obama said he couldn’t make it.
Three weeks later, Team Trump – including the president, the first lady, Ivanka and Jared, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer, most of the Cabinet and 300 other guests – attended the lavish Mnuchin-Linton wedding. Pence performed the ceremony at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium.
But the biggest splash was at the Kuwait-America Foundation dinner in October honouring Melania Trump. The guest list included United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, UN Ambassador Nicki Haley, national security adviser HR McMaster, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mnuchin, Cohn, Ross and many more.
The president made a surprise appearance, praising Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima, as “very special people who have become friends.” It was another coup for the Embassy Row hostess, who has wrangled top names from three administrations to the embassy with good causes and a star-studded crowd.
And that, so far, has been it as far as parties go, unless you count steak dinners at the Trump International Hotel.
It should be noted that Barack and Michelle Obama were also criticised for not engaging much with social Washington. They stuck close to the White House and close friends, and ventured out for date nights more than dinner parties.
But Obama showed up at Washington’s biggest parties – the Alfalfa Club dinner, Gridiron, the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the Kennedy Center Honours – at least once. Modern presidents have traditionally headlined these events, a show of bipartisan bonhomie and sportsmanship.
Trump, thus far, has declined most of these invitations to both the relief and the consternation of the organisers. The Kennedy Center Honours in December went on without Trump in the presidential box after some former honorees said they would boycott the White House reception before the December awards show.
He twice skipped January’s Alfalfa (last year and last month), where gentle roasting is expected. Although half of Trump’s cabinet attended the dinner this year, the jokes about the president had a harder edge. Which caused one politician to muse at the after-party: “I don’t understand why Ivanka comes to this. If my daughter heard those jokes about me, she’d get up and walk out.”
Trump also skipped Gridiron last year, where the Washington press corps performs satirical skits about both parties, although Pence, Conway and Spicer were honoured guests.
The news that the president will attend this year’s dinner on Saturday has been met with mixed feelings: Does this mean Trump’s icy relationship with the Washington press has thawed? Or is this a chance for him to mock the reporters on their own turf? Although the club invites the president every year, some members privately say they are uncomfortable schmoozing with a man who has routinely attacked them.
Until recently, most people believed that Trump passed on the White House correspondent’s dinner last year because of his ongoing war with the media. But if you believe author Michael Wolff, Trump wanted to attend and was excited to take on his foes.
According to Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, Trump believed that his 2015 hosting stint on Saturday Night Live was a smash hit and wanted to repeat that success at the WHCA dinner. His staff, on the other hand, was “terrified that he would die up there in front of a seething audience. Though he could dish it out, often very harshly, no one thought he could take it.”
Then-presidential adviser Steve Bannon persuaded the president not to appear, arguing that breaking bread with the enemy looked weak. The White House staff announced that they would skip the dinner in solidarity, and several accompanied Trump to a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“But the president kept wanting an update on the jokes,” according to Wolff.
Trump may hate Washington, but he apparently still cares what it thinks about him. More than a year into his presidency, Washington is still making up its mind.