As he has with almost all our other norms and institutions, Donald Trump has thoroughly warped what we expect our leaders to wear. Since the apocryphal story of John F. Kennedy riding his good looks, New England country club hair, and bronzed face to the White House in the ‘60s, politicos have been maniacally attentive to what they wear and the signals their attire sends. Trump’s ill-fitting suits, orange skin, and knee-scraping ties suggested he was ignoring all those rules—and barreled into the White House regardless.
And as Trump’s band of cronies followed him into positions of power, they proved over and over again that they have more money than style. Who can forget Paul Manafort’s $15,000 ostrich-leather jacket? Or Michael Cohen’s closet full of suits from the Italian luxury brand Isaia, and its signature pink coral pin, that made a wordless claim to his wealth and status? No one leaned further into the idea of clothes-as-costume than Roger Stone, whose devotion to tailoring signaled some respect for decorum—while he coordinated the disruption of fair democratic process with Wikileaks.
Gordon Sondland may have been out of his depth as a diplomat, but he is a man of exactly this ilk. He made his fortune with a hotel empire and donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee in 2017, a year later gleefully accepting an ambassadorship to the European Union. And when he showed up to testify in front of Congress yesterday, he looked like a Trump ally—thanks chiefly to a $55,300 18-carat white gold watch from the brand Breguet.
Under Trump, many congressional hearings have served as the stage for a kind of super-charged fashion kabuki theater. In an effort to emanate the dutiful image of a lifelong civil servant, Robert Mueller made a regular uniform out of D.C. camouflage: boring suits and white button-up shirts. His standard watch? A $50 Casio DW-290 sport watch that tells me he definitely acquired all the Boy Scout badges. When Joseph Maguire, the Acting Director of National Intelligence, testified in the whistleblower complaint back in September, he wore a beat-up $91 Seiko.
But it’s not just Trump’s natural enemies who are nimbly playing this game. On Capitol Hill, almost everyone’s wardrobe is carefully considered. Yesterday, Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio and one of the few from Trump’s party questioning his motives, wore a watch from Shinola, which assembles its watches in Detroit and noisily wraps itself in all the grit and Made-in-Americanness that implies. The watch signals that—darn-tootin’!—the representative from Ohio supports American manufacturing.
All this creates a certain set of expectations for government wristwear: lifelong civil servants wear a certain kind of watch, one that effectively symbolizes their substance-over-flash approach to governing, or that puts their love for America on their sleeve. This has been the standard for a few decades: George W. Bush and Bill Cliton wore cheap Timex watches, Obama a $200 timepiece from the brand Jorg Gray. Trump, naturally, is often seen wearing a… Rolex (famously the brand of choice for Ronald Reagan, too).
So when Sondland appeared in front of Congress flaunting a watch commensurate with his fortune, it was not unlike appearing in a jersey announcing what team he played for. And until at least a few weeks ago, we definitely knew which side he was on. In early October, Trump called Sondland a “really good man” and “great American” and said the ambassador would confirm there was no quid pro quo.
Of course, Sondland’s explosive testimony explicitly said the opposite. “Was there a quid pro quo,” he asked rhetorically. “The answer is yes.” It was a great bit of friendly fire between two men who have relished their roles as successful businessmen and collected all the loudest symbols of that prosperity. Which makes it particularly ironic that, in the end, Trump was stabbed in the back by the arm he never saw coming: the one wearing a $55,000 watch.
Originally Appeared on GQ