To enter the domain of the president-elect of the United States, the only things required are patience and a security screening.
At the entrance to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a sign indicates that it is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Still, the sight of a dozen heavily armed police and Secret Service officers on a recent rainy morning makes me hesitate. “You can go in,” one of them says, gesturing toward the revolving doors and the checkpoint just beyond.
Inside, the atrium gleams with brass fittings. The walls are lined with panels of Italian marble in shades of red and pink veined with white, like an expensive cut of meat. There is a Trump-branded bar, café, restaurant and kiosk. A huge wall fountain gurgles in the background as Christmas music plays on a loop.
Somewhere, high above, is Donald Trump. This is where he works and lives, and now, where he is preparing to lead the most powerful country in the world. The slender skyscraper’s prior claim to fame was as the setting of Mr. Trump’s reality-television show. Now, some have taken to calling it – only half in jest – White House North. Each day, it is part media circus, part political melodrama and part tourist attraction.
Mr. Trump has promised to offer a plan on Dec. 15 to eliminate conflicts of interest between his business holdings and his role as president. One question is whether he will distance himself from Trump Tower, the heart of his empire. Mr. Trump developed the 58-storey building, which opened in 1983 and sits a few blocks south of Central Park.
On Tuesday morning, the first high-profile visitor is Mike Pence, the vice-president-elect. He greets the reporters and photographers waiting behind a red velvet rope in the lobby. There is a whir of camera shutters. He ignores a shouted question about whether people burning the American flag should be jailed, as Mr. Trump proposed in a tweet a few hours earlier.
“It’s going to be a busy day,” Mr. Pence says jauntily. “Stay tuned.”
Less than a minute after arriving, he disappears behind a set of gold-coloured elevator doors.
Much of the day’s intrigue will revolve around Mr. Trump’s selection of a secretary of state. In the evening, Mr. Trump will have dinner with Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and once a fierce critic of the president-elect. In the afternoon, Mr. Trump will meet with Bob Corker, a U.S. senator for Tennessee, also rumoured to be in the running to become the country’s top diplomat.
Throughout the morning, fans of Mr. Trump arrive in the hope (in vain, it turns out) of glimpsing the president-elect. Wayne Hale, 64, a contractor from Atlanta, is wearing a red Make America Great Again hat that he just purchased on the lower level. “We are certainly on his side and hope he does great things,” Mr. Hale says. “We just want to be part of the transformation.”
Dana Wasser, 69, of Port Neches, Tex., spots Kellyanne Conway, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, as she exits one of the elevators. Ms. Wasser hugs Ms. Conway as though she is an old friend. They take a photo together. Ms. Wasser and her group of friends lingers in a bid to see Mr. Trump himself.
Next on the agenda: lunch at Tavern on the Green, followed by a performance of The Lion King.
Tourists from France, Germany, Japan and Britain arrive in the atrium. Above it, there are dozens of floors of offices and apartments, all behind a serrated façade of dark glass. A man from Frankfurt tells me that he finds Trump Tower delightful but is terrified that its owner was elected president. “Every country has the leader it deserves,” he says, paraphrasing an 18th-century French philosopher.
On this day, there are no protesters outside the building. But at lunchtime, Jeff Bergman, 38, stands on one side of the lobby, opens a book and begins to read aloud. “A little light reading,” he says wryly.
The book is Night by Elie Wiesel, a landmark memoir of the Holocaust. “The idea is a teach-in,” he says, explaining that he strikes up conversations with passersby. Mr. Bergman works nearby and hopes to come each day to engage in a form of peaceful protest.
I head to the lower level to find something to eat. The café is packed. Groups of Secret Service agents chow down on sandwiches and discuss their shift schedules. Tourists take photos with a giant Christmas tree. Staff members hustle to clean tables.
As I descend, I realize that I am on the same escalator from which Mr. Trump launched his bid for the presidency in June, 2015, waving as cameras flashed with his wife, Melania, in front of him. Then, Mr. Trump was a joke, a sideshow. A couple from London, Nicole and Erez King, have noticed the same thing. They re-enact the entire scene. Mr. King descends the escalator, waving, as Ms. King records on her phone.
A nearby kiosk features Trump merchandise, including books, golf shirts, baby clothes and Make America Great Again hats. To my surprise, Mr. Trump also has two branded eaux de toilette for sale: Success and Empire. What do Mr. Trump and his ambitions smell like? I take a sniff. The former is blandly masculine. The latter is a touch sweet. It’s available for $62 (U.S.) a bottle, a saleswoman says.
There is a city and a world outside but Trump Tower is its own little solar system, with a recognizable constellation of characters. Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager and a onetime CNN contributor, scowls and looks at his watch near the elevator. Steven Mnuchin, who will be nominated Treasury Secretary, comes off the escalator with a cup of coffee. Hope Hicks, Mr. Trump’s spokesperson, orders a salad at the café counter for lunch.
Reports have suggested that Mr. Trump wants to return regularly to his three-storey penthouse in Trump Tower even after becoming president in January. The Secret Service may rent a floor in the building for a command post, according to CNN, at a considerable cost to U.S. taxpayers.
At 4:08 p.m., Mr. Pence reappears. He offers prayers for the people of Tennessee, who are struggling with deadly wildfires. Mr. Pence says he is “excited by the calibre of the men and women” under consideration for the cabinet. He praises Mr. Trump’s leadership and energy. Mr. Pence’s remarks are conventional and polished – and therefore, in this context, amid this pink-and-gold lobby, utterly surreal.
Outside, the city begins to grow dark under a driving rain. Steam rises from manhole covers and a siren echoes in the distance. Drinkers gather at the Trump Bar in the lobby. Every seat is taken. They gaze up at two televisions, both tuned to Fox News. Every few minutes, a scene from Trump Tower flashes on the screens.Report Typo/Error