My Lunch with Donald Trump: Behind The Scenes at the Presumptive GOP Nominee’s Bay Area Visit

The contentious celebrity candidate's appearance last week revealed a Republican party unhinged.

Editor’s note: This story was published before Sen. Ted Cruz suspended his GOP presidential campaign.

A text message flashed on my phone’s screen: “Fifth floor.” Boom: I power-walked to the nearest elevator, passing law-enforcement officers in riot-gear-style helmets and hotel security waving walkie-talkies. A few floors up, and I was the lone journalist to see the deed from high: A mustard-yellow banner some three stories tall dangling over the Hyatt Regency’s lobby. Workers and guests craned their necks upward. Custodians groaned as they prepared to fish it down. Through the hotel’s glass façade, passers-by could read the words emblazoned on the banner for blocks:

“Stop Hate.”

Somehow, a trio of protesters armed with the banner and some mountaineering gear weaseled through security on Friday in Burlingame, day one of the California Republican Party’s annual convention. They straddled a beam perched hundreds of feet above the ground, wiggled their butts to its edge, and hung the declaration.

It was a glorious feat for the Bay Area’s civilly disobedient, not unlike flying a Warriors championship banner in Oracle’s rafters. A “yuge” success: the words “Stop Hate” unfurled just as Donald Trump and the Republican Party were unraveling downstairs.

This went down just before the brash and bombastic Trump’s lunch in the Bay commenced on Friday. Feverish starfuckers queued for hours to kiss his ring, but the party establishment was chagrined by his arrival. And his presence also triggered ferocious, creative protests by the Bay’s most prominent activist groups — which will surely be the norm in blue cities nationwide if Trump seals the nominee deal.

Many likened the Hyatt that morning to a hotel under siege (see Sam Lefebvre’s sidebar feature for more on the protests, page 20.)

And there I was, man on the inside, behind enemy lines, with a pass to Trump’s sold-out, $150-a-pop banquet lunch. It would be an unequaled window into this bizarre collision of a celebrity politician, Big Money power, and one very angry mob. Pass the bread rolls, please.

Hours before the banner incident, Burlingame was its sleepy suburban self. Seven California Highway Patrol officers stood near their vehicles at the Hyatt’s offramp, all but one wearing shades as the sun inched into the Bay sky. This was 8:30 a.m. Traffic was breezy. One of my colleagues, Lefebvre, took a smartphone pic of the officers. Irked, they shot us a look, then snapped a photo back.

The Hyatt stretches nearly the length of a city block. Law-enforcement officers from a smorgasbord of jurisdictions dotted its front lawn, a waist-high metal fence separating them from a smattering of early-arrival protesters. Hotel employees wouldn’t even let this writer enter through the front doors. Later, at a side entrance, they patted down my black hoodie (George Zimmerman style) but didn’t even search by backpack. Finally, two kindly volunteers granted me into the media pen. I made it.

A woman in all black shouted directions to more than a dozen volunteers wearing red Sen. Ted Cruz T-shirts. “We’re here to be positive about Ted Cruz,” she instructed. “Don’t argue or fight with anyone.” Was this a GOP convention, or Wrestlemania?

Cruz signs dominated nearly every wall, corridor, staircase and lounge inside the hotel. Not a single Trump sign or banner, though — and there wouldn’t be any by the time I left in the afternoon, either. Talk about ground game.

The security they had would make TSA blush. Organizers corralled journalists and made them enter the luncheon banquet room two full hours before Trump’s speech was scheduled to begin. The line inched forward slower than the queue at the latest trendy bagel spot. Secret Service told photo- and video-journalists to dump their gear in a pile, where a police dog sniffed it all at once.

Then, yelling. A woman and a megaphone. A Trump protester! She’d infiltrated the convention, her shouts reverberated through the lobby. A media scrum of dozens shot toward her. Pack journalism at its finest. Hotel security snatched the woman by her limbs and dragged her out of the building.

Convention-goers whispered concerns in the men’s restroom. “I’m a little worried about security because I saw a woman wearing an SEIU T-shirt,” a man confessed while washing his hands.

I heard at least four “You’re Fired!” jokes. Quota met. At ease, GOP jesters.

The vibe at the convention skewed more nervous than enthusiastic, which was odd, given that GOP presidential primaries have not mattered in California in decades.

“California’s going to be decisive,” reminded Jon Fleischmann, a prominent conservative blogger and consultant who’s been attending conventions since 1988. “It’s not like Trump is going to clinch the nomination before June 7.” He noted that absentee ballots beging to go out next week, and that the near-constant electioneering in the Golden State will make it feel like election month.

“The stakes are pretty high,” he said.

Party loyalists should be stoked, right? Reality check: One of the most progressive states in the nation will decide if Trump will be anointed— and nobody is thrilled.

How will it all work? California awards three delegates per Congressional district, which means there are a total of 30 in play in the greater Bay Area. The Golden State also bestows an additional 10 delegates to whoever wins the state outright. There’s a total of 172 in play for the Reeps, and the state’s bounty will make or break Trump hitting the magic 1,237 number.

This likely means more Trump appearances in the Bay. And, by turn, more Trump fanatics and their “papier-mâché crazy shit,” as Fleischmann put it. (He’s pro- Cruz and, like a majority of his party, “can see through [Trump’s] bullshit,” he says.)

Kevin Krick, a former President George W. Bush adviser and current chairman of the Bay Area GOP, wouldn’t go so far as to malign Trump or endorse a candidate. He’d only say that it’s exciting to play “kingmaker” during an election. “We’re usually the final pitcher in the ninth inning, but typically the games already a blowout,” he said.

As for Trump, Krick dug up an old adage: Any press is good press. “And Trump drawing attention to the Republican process is a great thing,” he said.

Fleischmann was unpersuaded. He urged this writer to reach out and chat with Trump supporters, to peel away the layers. “And you’ll understand the nature of the people,” he assured.

Thing is, you don’t actually have to sniff out Trump supporters to speak with them: They tackle you.

Luisa Aranda is Latina. She was also wearing an oversized white T-shirt with black lettering that spelled out “Latinos for the wall.”

And she literally tugged on my press placard and shouted —”Talk to us, you’re media!” — as I walked past, bringing me to a halt.

The mom from Brentwood, which is about 45 miles east of Oakland, was waiting in the never-ending Secret Service line to see Trump. To bide the time, she wanted to complain to me about how people cussed her out and called her a “traitor” on her way into the hotel. I pointed to her shirt — hello! — to which she explained, “Hell yes, I’m for the wall. We need a wall.”

I asked her how much it will cost. “It’s going to cost a lot?”

I asked her what the wall stops. “It’s going to stop a lot of drug-trafficking,” she answered.

Her friend, Cheryl McDonald, interjected: “All the ISIS coming over the wall.”

McDonald is president of the East Contra Costa Republican Women Federated group. Blinking lights decorated her red, white and blue cowgirl hat. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that ISIS cannot enter the country by mounting a wall that does not yet exist.)

McDonald says she founded ECCRWF some 35 years ago, but warned that she would bail on the organization for The Donald. “If he leaves the party, I go with him,” she promised.

Aranda is a member of this group, too, and echoed her sentiment. She said this was her first convention, and that she’d “never been passionate” about a candidate before Trump — except, you know, when she voted for Obama in 2008.

“I was a Democrat. I’m allowed to change my mind,” Aranda rationalized. Now, she’s a Trump Mom. And fanatical to boot: “I was in New York and I ate at his restaurant. I read Art of the Deal.”

Ridicule aside, the Trump supporters I met at the convention were by no means stupid. These women were articulate, armed with data and examples, and they launched them with vitality and even good humor. It’s just that they’re wildly misinformed, lied to by a carnival barker in an expensive suit. Latinos for the wall? I’m saddened.

Inside the banquet hall, Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” blasted on the speakers. Round tables draped in white-cloths were dressed with plates of green salad, cherry tomatoes, and asparagus. The room was redolent of raspberry vinaigrette. And there were an underwhelming number of people with “Make America Great Again” caps. Only six, by my count.

Trump clones ate up the hearty media presence. A man dressed in a powdered blue suit, white shirt, and red Trump cap rushed from news camera to news camera. If Trump’s candidacy truly qualifies as a movement, then this guy is poster boy. He rattled on about how Hillary Clinton should be in prison. And how Trump is going to keep China in check. A TV journalist nodded, as if saying, “Yes, of course, that all completely makes sense.”

After a 45-minute delay, the luncheon began with a prayer, a Psalm, something about leading the United States out of despair — which the pastor used as a not-so-veiled ding on Obama. The blue-chip sponsors trickled in and filled stage-front tables.

When Trump finally arrived, the applause was muted — but only because most everyone was videotaping with their phones. He first cracked a joke about how, because of the protesters, he allegedly had to hop a fence and scurry through a field before sneaking through a back door. He compared his adventure to “crossing the border.”

Sorry, Donald: More than 100 bodies are found each year along migration routes from Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times. What he experienced was basically a flat tire on Highway 101.

His speech, a mishmash of greatest hits (the wall, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary), felt rushed, if a bit frazzled. Not frantic, per se, but perhaps hastened by the protesters. Also, it wasn’t much of a speech — more a braggadocio, devoid of issues or policy. Perhaps he was rattled, or at the very least hurried, by unexpected detours upon arrival. For all the fanfare and scalped tickets and hours-long security queues, it lasted barely more than 20 minutes. (Enter your own joke about Trump not lasting.)

Anyway, he dedicated his opening remarks to a roundup of favorable poll numbers and prior delegate wins. Then, he pivoted to full-on insult mode: from Cruz to Kasich to Carly, and even the very GOP delegates in the room. “Folks, I’m a conservative — but at this point who cares?” he blurted at one point, a glib dismissal of pretty much every card-carrying Reep. This came after ridiculing the GOP establishment as “disgusting” and “losers.”

You know, run-of-the-mill Trump fare.

A man in the hall yelled out “Build the wall!” Of course he did. They love that damn wall. It’s the quintessential rallying cry for xenophobic, oh-there’s-a-brown-person-better-hold-my-purse-tighter America. Obama had “hope”; Trump has a wall. That afternoon, the wall costs $10 billion. Who knows what it will cost tomorrow.

Despite calls for Trump to curb his diatribes, the man came across as wholly uninterested in appearing presidential on Friday. At one point, he made fun of Cruz by imitating a whining child. “Mommy!” he mocked, rubbing his eyes, as if crying. The audience reacted with equal parts muffled laughter and icy silence.

His speech was the political equivalent of a rapper talking smack on a hip-hop album’s outro track.

And then it was mic-drop time. Trump’s stump was a dump, and he ended with jokes about escaping the hotel-protest mess and returning to Indiana: “They’re going to take me under a fence, through a field,” he joked. “You have no idea.”

Trump’s escape on Friday mirrored the Republican Party conundrum: How will the GOP ever crawl out from under the ignominy of having that man as their presidential nominee?

And it’s not just that he’s in continuous attack mode. It’s also his crude method. Compare Trump’s speech to Obama’s much-discussed final White House Correspondents Dinner comedy set this past Saturday. Whereas Trump was a loudmouth on the attack, likening his enemies to infants and criminals, Obama zinged and skewered his adversaries with delicate self-deprecating humor. Trump’s approach was like using a brick to shoo a fly; Obama simply cracked a window and sipped a cocktail.

It’s also clear that the Republican establishment, because of Trump — and because of years of inefficacy in Washington, spurred by the Tea Party’s evolution — has finally lost control over its narrative. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in his most recent Sunday column, Trump’s brutish maneuvering is tantamount to “playing the man card,” a faux pas of faux pas, and his speech the type of invective a drunken golfer might rant after a bad round and a few too many at the 19th hole.

Kristof wrote that conservatives are often “indignant” when accused of sexism or misogyny. And that, to their defense, those accusations were often overblown—that is “until Donald Trump showed up,” the columnist zinged.

It’s true: The party let a man who shows nary a modicum of respect for it snag the megaphone. He’s unhinged — and the party is spilling apart like a loose ball of yarn.

Even Charlie Munger, whose son bankrolls a majority of conservative causes in California and who helped fund this weekend’s GOP convention, told Yahoo Finance last week that Trump was “a form of sickness.” And this from a guy who himself writes some beefy checks to the Republican National Committee.

So, after Trump’s talk, people wanted out. But police and security wouldn’t let this writer, or even hotel guests, exit through any of the main doors, because of the protests out front. We had to pull our own Trump and leave out a side door — then walk through a parking garage, which spit us out a half-block away from the venue.

I wandered back to the hotel, where hundreds of activists waved flags and hollered at law enforcement. A woman screamed into a bullhorn while protesters encircled a burning American flag: “Fuck what the American flag stands for. We don’t stand for that shit.” The flag lay on the grass, shredded and smoldering.

A fitting image for the Grand Ole Party, indeed.

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