Michael Wolff at the Trump Inauguration: A Muted and Otherworldly Affair

Win McNamee/Getty Images
President Donald Trump

“It’s like an episode of 'Veep,'” said an official from the first George Bush administration at the Time Warner party as the Trump family gathered on the inaugural platform.

The thing about the posed photo of Donald Trump working on his inaugural address, prompting great social media hilarity, is that it’s sort of true. Not the exact pencil-to-paper part, but the part in which, without actually writing it, he is the author, or improviser, of his own speech. Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart editor and new administration’s “chief strategist,” may be the architect of it, or the brains behind it, but the expression of it is pure Trump. Even if it is a teleprompter speech — an unfortunate concession to liberal manners — the determination or, if you will, truculence, or golf face, angry and pissed off, is written in, or cemented, as he practices it. Well, not so much practices it, but riffs it. Hence, the speech actually reads much calmer (if it is not quite uplifting); its darkness-at-noon quality comes in its delivery. Trump, shoulders hunched, arms swinging, brow furled, lips pursed, is the medium of his message.

There has always been at inaugural events in modern memory a sense of celebration, the party faithful celebrating happy times continuing or arriving once more, the permanent government and Washington political apparatus (the swamp) is eager to look for its new advantage as the media begins its fawning honeymoon. Here at the Trump inaugural, nobody was exactly kicking up their heels: If the streets were not quite deserted — Uber drivers were complaining about the steep drop in business — the mood was muted and the pros wary.

On the evening before the new President was sworn in, I attended a reception at the Jefferson Hotel to “Salute the Senate,” and, as well, to promote the Jefferson Hotel. Bob Corker, the Republican Senator from Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — in theory, assuming a big new role as the Trump administration rewrites our international relationships — began his remarks, after some throat clearing, with the existential question, “Where are things going?” He paused for a moment and then answered, as though from some deep well of bewilderment, “I have no idea.”

In fact, there were strikingly fewer events, celebratory or promotional, to greet this new administration. And if there was any consistent theme, it was to compare the reluctance and paucity of this inaugural to ones past.

The concert at the Lincoln Memorial, part of an always-awkward effort to import pop culture to Washington, ended up, absent any star power, with Trump himself taking the stage as the featured act.

At a small dinner I went to with Democrat and Republican lobbyists and influence peddlers (the swamp) in the neighborhood where both the Obamas and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner will shortly live, there was a kind of curious bi-partisanship forged around the Trump team as the tri-party. At least for the moment, all prior alliances and viewpoints seem to fall or to coalesce before this new unknown and confounding force. Even if your politics were comfortable with the Trump direction, it was hard to find anybody in the professional political class comfortable with Trump himself. Alternatively, in a turn on the seriously-versus-literally view of how to regard Trump, it seemed that while a large part of the country might be comfortable with Trump himself, it was hard to believe they would be comfortable, or would have anticipated, his Goldman Sachs cabinet and policies (anyway, the liberals would like to think the Trumpers would soon rise up in great umbrage).

Around the city, on inaugural morning, anybody in the swamp who had offices with a good view of the Capitol or White House was hosting a viewing party. In this, the swamp seemed to occupy the high ground (rather like catered luxury boxes at big-ticket sporting events). I went to the Time Warner viewing party in its offices on Connecticut Avenue with a great view of the parade route and of the Obamas' last drive out of the White House, in part because the fate of the proposed AT&T Time Warner merger hangs in the Trump balance. Curiously, there seemed to be little official anxiety about this seismic changing of the guard.

“Nobody in New York is paying attention to what’s happening here,” said one Washington-based Time Warner official, acknowledging that the media corporate brass were simply holding their nose about Trump.

It did feel from the greater Time Warner and New York media view that this was distinctly otherworldly. Ripples of laughter, perhaps nervous laughter, went up whenever Trump supporters, quite a rag-tag army, appeared in close-up on the big screens — a passing illustration of the divide that had now brought them to power.

Still, the party was curiously silent as Trump made his way through the Capitol to the podium, striding alone, flexing his shoulders and swinging his arms, with one of the Time Warner guest noting that, four years ago, when the Obamas last walked to the podium, there was only chatter in this room and good cheer.

“It’s like an episode of Veep,” said an official from the first George Bush administration at the Time Warner party as the Trump family gathered on the inaugural platform.

The speech, from its first moment reaping a social-media whirlwind of shocked condemnation, was in fact astonishing for its clarity, its brevity and its target. All the themes of the campaign — often thought to be paradoxical or hyperbolic — were presented in succinct and unvarnished summary here. The elites were out, the Trumps were in. Social media focused on the contradiction here of billionaires on the platform without seeming to appreciate that these billionaires, or this billionaire, for better or worse, logically or not, had come to harness, with his aggression and defiance, the resentments of half a nation. Liberal social media seemed once more astonished that he was not now backing down.

Of the inaugural balls, traditionally low-rent affairs attended by members of the donor class looking for personal affirmation or business connections, the two official ones — at which the President, evidently not much of a dancer, and his wife shared a dance — were at the convention center. There were 20,000 at the downstairs event and several thousand at the upstairs big donor affair, including family and friends and the new White House staff (each guest got four drink tickets, equaling one glass of champagne in a plastic cup.) There were virtually no Washington types in attendance — no elected officials, no prominent press, no congressional staff, no lobbyists. The swamp had surely not been drained, but it was holding back. Waiting.