WASHINGTON – In the lobby of the Trump International Hotel, three blocks from the White House, Suzzanne Monk was wearing a home-made Santa hat embroidered with the words "Make America Great Again."
Tuesday night. A Republican was ahead in Alabama. The crowd was upbeat. She posted a smiling selfie on Facebook.
"Watching Alabama returns at Trump International," she wrote.
Monk, a 45-year-old author and Trump advocate, was here for the latest "MAGA Meetup," a gathering of President Trump's strongest supporters who make monthly pilgrimages to the hotel he owns. Nearby, Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, strolled through the lobby to attend a holiday party hosted by the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, one of three events the group held at the hotel this month.
Since last year's election, Trump's luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue has operated as a kind of political clubhouse for his aides and fans – a refuge filled with like-minded people, where the euphoria of Trump's world-changing 2016 win still persists.
On Tuesday, the only windows to the outside world were the two muted TVs on over the bar, set to CNN and Fox News. By about 10 p.m., the bad news started to filter in.
"We're in trouble," one man hollered to his friends as the returns began to favor Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
The race was called about 10:25 p.m. The bar started to empty. Monk stayed on.
Better here than anyplace else in Washington.
"It's our little Trump safe space," Monk said.
That's never been more true than recently, as the hotel has hosted a stream of events celebrating Trump's victory and the people who made it possible.
The last few weeks have featured – among other Trump-themed events – a party thrown by Tampa author and consultant Jill Kelley to celebrate the anniversary of Trump's election victory, a separate $30,000 reception put on by the president's reelection committee, and a book party for former Trump aides Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie.
"The fact is the Trump International Hotel in D.C. is a hot venue," said Brian O. Walsh, president of America First Action, whose group said it paid the president's company fair market value for its three events.
Hotel officials declined to comment.
From the start, the Trump International Hotel – built in the federally owned Old Post Office building, and operated under a contract with the government – has functioned as a buoyant bubble for Trump supporters and advisers.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin paid to live there for six months, carrying a small dog through the soaring lobby. Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman got married there in April: Hotel staff toasted her by whacking open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne with a saber.
On the night in May that Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump supporters were already gathered at the hotel bar for a regular "MAGA Meetup." Many wore "Make America Great Again" hats. They clinked cocktail glasses to toast the firing.
On Nov. 9, just after the first anniversary of the election, Kelley – who wrote a book about her role in the Gen. David Petraeus scandal – hosted a party for dozens of Trump campaign veterans and political appointees. Open bar. Trump Wine. Kelley, who is seeking to start a political consulting company in D.C., said she paid for the whole thing personally.
The point, she said, was to gather Trump aides in one place so foreign government representatives could meet them. At least six countries sent envoys, she said.
"It's important for them to understand this government," Kelley said.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 28, Trump's presidential campaign – already up and running for 2020 – held its own one-year-after celebration in the hotel's ballroom. The guests included an array of Trump surrogates such as YouTube duo Diamond and Silk, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), and former campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson – as well as presidential son Eric Trump.
The "VIP reception," which featured deviled egg with hackleback caviar, lobster BLTs and cake pops, cost $30,000, according to an internal hotel billing document obtained by the Washington Post.
Campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Last Thursday, there was a book party for Let Trump Be Trump, authored by former campaign staffers Lewandowski and Bossie, a holiday party for Republican state attorneys general, and an after-party for the official White House Hanukkah Party, the latter sponsored by America First Action and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The emotional pinnacle of the night came at about 10:30 p.m. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had been eating at a table at BLT Prime, the expensive steakhouse housed on an elevated platform above the hotel's lobby.
At 10:30, they came down the stairs and out into the lobby itself.
Security moved in to clear the way. A crowd of dozens turned to the commotion, and began to move. Men in suits. Women in gowns. The crowd moved, at a fast walk, across the lobby to gather around the two.
"We love you, Ivanka!" someone yelled.
"Thank you for everything!" yelled somebody else.
The pair posed for selfies, shook hands, and left.
On Monday of this week, worrisome news about the special counsel's Russia investigation played on muted TVs above the bar. CNN: "What did POTUS know, and when?" Fox: "Robert Mueller's witch hunt."
But the good mood still held. Lewandowski walked in again, shaking hands and hugging people. An aide trailed him, holding an armload of books for signing.
There have been other pro-Trump gatherings at other Trump buildings around the country. On Tuesday night, for instance, another MAGA Meetup was held in a bar at Trump International Hotel in Chicago, where about 20 people gathered.
There, too, the mood soured as the Republican lost in the heartland of Trump's victory.
"This is a big wake-up call," one man told another in that group, looking down at his phone. "This is the first Trump-endorsed candidate that's lost."
Back in Washington, as Democrats celebrated on television and pundits called the race a loss of face for Trump, the lobby of the president's hotel was largely empty.
Monk, in the homemade "Make America Great Again" Santa hat, lingered.
She sat on a couch in the lobby, alone, reading the news on her phone. Despite the loss, she said, she is still optimistic pro-Trump candidates would prevail in the midterms. "It's 2018 already in my mind," she said.