ore than seven weeks after pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, nearly 5,000 National Guard troops still remain in Washington, D.C., amid concerns over more potential violence from QAnon followers. At the heart of the threat is a belief among some conspiracy theorists that former President Donald Trump will be inaugurated again on March 4—and they look to his Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue for signs.
National security experts say this outlandish expectation is fueled by the “Big Lie” repeatedly told by Trump and his supporters that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. When people drive the opposite narrative, it “then gets taken and put into really wacky sets of arguments,” Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, explained during a hearing last week with defense officials.
“Some of these people have figured out that apparently, 75 years ago, the President used to be inaugurated on March 4,” Rep. Smith added in a sarcastic tone. “Okay, now why that’s relevant, God knows. But any rate, now they are thinking maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4. Okay, that is circulating online.”
As is so often the case with conspiracy theories, there is a kernel of truth buried somewhere in the narrative. Prior to the 1933 passage of the 20th amendment, presidents were indeed sworn in on March 4. But that fact has then been wrapped in falsehoods and pretzel logic.
This QAnon theory borrows from the discredited sovereign citizens movement, which insists that a law enacted in 1871 secretly ended the United States government and turned the country into a corporation. Which means that the last true American president was Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president, who was serving in 1871. All of which somehow adds up to Trump returning to power on March 4 as the 19th president of the United States. And Trump’s Washington hotel has now become Conspiracy Central.
Q Who: Jake Angeli (aka The Q Shaman) attends a December 2020 ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in Washington.
hat we think of as QAnon began during the Trump administration,” says Mike Rothschild, author of the forthcoming book, The Storm is Upon Us: How QAnon Became a Movement, Cult, and Conspiracy Theory of Everything. “Q’s first-ever post was that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested.”
It was the perfect tease for Trump supporters who already had a conspiratorial view of the world. “They had been immersed in 30 years of conspiracy theories about her,” says Rothschild. “It fit in perfectly with what they already believed.”
Trump has long denied knowing anything about QAnon, but always with a wink. At a White House press briefing last August, the former president said, “I don’t know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much—which I appreciate,” adding, “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
That’s a dangerously coy Trump position, according to Jason Blazakis, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonpartisan think tank that looks at national security challenges, including domestic extremism. “I’ll just say, I don’t believe President Trump doesn’t know who QAnon is,” Blazakis says. “He’s trying to be very clever in the words that he uses so he doesn’t implicate himself directly in the conspiracy, but also at the same time, doesn’t discourage those from providing him political support.”
QAnon adherents are always looking to Trump for validation, says Blazakis, and they recently received a sign when the Washington hotel hiked its rates for March 4. (A spokesperson for the Trump International Hotel did not respond to a request for comment.)
The least expensive room at Trump International comes with a king-size bed with an opulent headboard topped with a gilded crown. Throughout March, this room generally runs anywhere from $476 to $596 per night, with one noteworthy exception. For the dates of March 3 and 4, the king deluxe is selling for $1,331 per night, 180% above the base rate and more than double what a guest would pay any other night next month.
One female QAnon devotee bragged about hanging out with a guy that Q acolytes believe is actually JFK Jr.
In this, Trump’s hotel is an anomaly among other luxury properties in the nation’s capital, notes Zach Everson in his 1100 Pennsylvania newsletter, which has tracked the comings and goings at the Trump International since the early days of his presidency. (It takes its name from the hotel’s address, just down the street from the White House.) When Everson surveyed other luxury hotels in this price category—the Four Seasons, Hay Adams, and St. Regis—he found no bump in rates for the same dates.
“Raising room prices will surely be interpreted by QAnon as Trump’s support for the March 4 narrative,” says Blazakis. “They absolutely try to interpret the words and actions of President Trump very carefully.”
In some ways, Trump’s rise and fall from power mirrors the Washington hotel’s trajectory. It burst on the D.C. scene along with Trump, opening just weeks before the general election that would sweep him into the White House.
Trump borrowed big from Deutsche Bank to secure the 100-year lease from the U.S. government (he doesn’t own the building) and for a glitzy, $200-million renovation that transformed the historic Post Office—a stunning Romanesque revival building that opened in 1899—into another luxury property in Trump’s portfolio. The prime location halfway between the White House and the U.S. Capitol was a big selling point. “Washington will never be the same,” was the hotel’s prescient slogan in those early days.
Grand Opening: Several days before Election Day in 2016, the Trump family cut the ribbon on the Washington Hotel.
Immediately after Trump was elected, the hotel became instantly synonymous with schmoozy grift, as GOP party bosses and elected officials lined up to hold high-end fundraisers and conservative media personalities posed for photos at the Benjamin Bar. Buoyed during that heady inaugural period, the hotel took in $18 million in the first four months of 2017 and another $34 million in the last eight, according to Trump’s financial disclosure report.
A seemingly endless stream of business leaders, industry lobbyists and foreign delegations flowed through the hotel—often tagging Trump on Twitter, just to make sure he knew—as they vied to curry favor with a president who had pledged to “drain the swamp.”
Included in the mix was a significant number of QAnon adherents. “Just by looking through social media posts, as I do for 1100 Pennsylvania,” says Everson. “You would see a lot people posting photos from the hotel along with QAnon hashtags or slogans.”
Some were simply tourists looking for a selfie to boost their street cred with fellow conspiracy lovers. In one of the more comical instances, a female QAnon devotee bragged about hanging out with a guy that QAnon acolytes believe is actually JFK Jr.
The Q connection is also evident at other Trump properties. Consider the QAnon-believing pastry chef at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. Elizabeth Alfieri posted dozens of photos of her dessert creations on Instagram, amplifying them with conspiracy hashtags like #qarmy. One image showed a Bundt cake with a wedge pulled out to form a ‘Q,’ accompanied by #Qismyfavoriteletter, #broughttoyoubytheletterQ and #doyouseemeQ. That Instagram account went private after Everson’s newsletter posted the screenshots.
After Trump lost the 2020 election, two of his most pugilistic supporters—Michael Flynn, the pardoned National Security Adviser, and Sidney Powell, one of the former president’s attorneys who promoted falsehoods about election fraud—made several media appearances from what the QAnon crowd quickly identified as the Trump International Hotel. Since receiving his pardon, Flynn has been one of QAnon’s most high-profile, outspoken promoters, as the New York Times reported.
Trump understands that QAnon believers make up a significant and valuable voting bloc, which he’ll need should he run again in 2024.
Then there is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Congress’ most oustpoken QAnon believer, who first visited the Trump International when she was running for office. “She certainly wasted no time in showing up at the hotel to spend campaign funds,” says Everson. “She had dinner with [Trump’s Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows and his wife there, based on a photo she appeared in. There was a group of Trump supporters who went there to eat ‘nothing burgers’ around the time Robert Mueller’s report came out.”
But a clientele made up only of Trump supporters hasn’t been enough to keep his Washington hotel from turning into a very expensive boondoggle. In September 2020, the New York Times reported that Trump’s tax return showed a $55.5 million loss at the hotel from its opening in 2016 to the end of 2018.
A year after the Trump Organization put the hotel on the market in the fall of 2019, the property had failed to nab a bid even close to the $500 million asking price and the hotel was eventually pulled off the market indefinitely.
Trump’s most recent financial disclosure report, released in the hours after his presidency ended, shows the Trump International Hotel’s revenue was down another $33 million in 2020, which translates to 62% drop from the previous year.
But the former president also understands that QAnon believers make up a significant and valuable voting bloc, which he’ll need should he run again in 2024—even if he is not inaugurated again next week.
So what happens when March 4 arrives and Trump is not sworn back into office? “Nothing happens,” Rothschild says, noting that QAnon will simply move the goal posts. “And then they just find another day. That’s how all prophetic movements go.”
I watch trends in travel. Prior to working at Forbes, I was a longtime freelancer who contributed hundreds of articles to Conde Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, Travel +