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Donald Trump’s bizarre hotel opening proved he’s in this for himself

Trump against backdrop
The whole point of Trump’s event was to get the media to publish photos of his hotel.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

WASHINGTON — Was Donald Trump’s stop in Washington, DC, to open his new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue a campaign event? It’s hard to say — because it’s hard to say if Trump is even still running for president.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, lagging Hillary Clinton in the polls, Trump is more determined to squeeze every last ounce of publicity from his presidential run than he is to get voters to the polls. He’s thinking past Election Day, and the future he’s envisioning isn’t in the Oval Office.

“With the notable exception of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this is the most coveted piece of real estate in Washington, the best location,” Trump said.

The ribbon-cutting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, had all the trappings of a campaign event. Secret Service agents escorted bomb-sniffing dogs across new carpets. Reporters mobbed Newt Gingrich and Jeff Sessions. Trump promised to make America great again, spinning his new hotel, once a crumbling historic landmark, into a bizarre metaphor for the nation itself.

Above all, though, the event at the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue was a promotional stunt. Trump has always seasoned his candidacy with self-promotion — it’s part of what made his political career unprecedented and the prospect of his presidency frightening — but with 13 days left to go, he’s pitching his vision for his hotels rather than his vision for America.

Clinton is making her closing argument. Trump is making infomercials.

If Trump cared about the presidency, he’d be in Ohio

Trump tried to downplay his stop in DC. “We’re going to a lobby, we’re going to cut a ribbon, and we’re going to North Carolina!” he said at the end of his brief remarks. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway compared his brief detour to Clinton taking time off the trail to prepare for the debate.

But preparing for a debate is a function of campaigning for president. Opening a hotel in the District of Columbia — a jurisdiction with three electoral votes that Trump will not win — at an event closed to the public is not.

The Trump hotel has been unofficially “open” since September 12. (Trump visited the site then, too.) There’s no reason a formal grand opening couldn’t have waited two more weeks. Or rather, there’s one reason: On November 9, if current trends hold, Trump won’t be trailed by a pack of journalists broadcasting his every move to billions around the world.

Cutting the ribbon at the Trump International Hotel was a way to ensure that journalists paid attention (although “stared in incredulity” might be more accurate) as the CEO of Trump Hotels bragged about the brand and its international acclaim, and to get photos of the gold-trimmed ballroom and opulent lobby into publications worldwide.

This is not the campaign of a candidate who’s serious about winning the election. Thirteen days before Election Day in 2012, Mitt Romney was holding rallies in Nevada and Iowa. Trump’s detour to Washington cost him half a day when he’s behind in the polls and time is short.

Trump, meanwhile, seemed happier to talk about his hotel than about his campaign. The hotel “seems insignificant compared to what we’re doing now,” he said, later adding: “But here we’re doing very well.”

“I’ve been very lucky and I’ve led a great life,” Trump said. “Now I want to give back to the country which I love so much.” He tried to turn the hotel into a metaphor for America:

It had all of the ingredients of greatness, but it had been neglected and left to deteriorate for many many decades … It had the foundation of success. All of the elements were here. Our job is to restore our former glory, honor its heritage, but also imagine a brand new and exciting vision for the future.

For the occasion, he abandoned his epithets for Clinton and his false claims that the election is “rigged.” Without a crowd cheering him on, he seemed to have abandoned the campaign trail entirely.

Trump is out for himself, not the country

Donald Trump Opens His New Golf Course At Turnberry
That time Donald Trump took a detour from campaigning to open a golf course in Scotland.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Imagine if Mitt Romney had, during the 2012 campaign, pointed out on national TV every time he drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, watched the Weather Channel, or bought a gift for his grandkids at Toys ‘R’ Us — all brands Bain Capital, the investment firm Romney co-founded, partially owned. Romney shared in some of Bain’s profits through his retirement package. Trying to make money off his own presidential campaign by promoting brands that benefited Bain would have seemed both weird and corrupt.

But this is exactly what Trump has done. He’s slotted in hotel promotions between rallies for months. He took reporters on Tuesday to his golf resort in Miami for an event that was ostensibly about his ability to create jobs, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Nick Corasaniti reported.

After Trump clinched the Republican nomination in the spring, he flew to Scotland in June to open his golf course. He turned a brief press conference in September, where he said that President Barack Obama was born in the United States and falsely claimed Hillary Clinton had started the “birther” rumors, into a long infomercial for the Old Post Office hotel in Washington, DC.

When Trump started relying on donors’ money to finance his campaign, he raised the rent for the offices in Trump Tower. He’s said he would turn his company over to his children rather than putting his assets into a blind trust. He’s refused to release his tax returns.

Trump’s “rigged election” rhetoric suggests he knows he’s likely to lose. Turning his campaign into an infomercial for his new hotel — and, along the way, getting the Secret Service to provide security for an event meant only to boost Trump’s brand and his ego — might be Trump’s way of planning for his loss.

But if he were to win, his track record suggests he’d think of the presidency as a unique brand fusion opportunity. Trump’s first use for the bully pulpit could well be to exhort people to stay at Trump hotels.

Watch: Making sense of Donald Trump's board game

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