President Barack Obama meets at the Waldorf Astoria in 2009 with Denis McDonough, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)
Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has stayed in the presidential suite on the 35th floor of the Waldorf Astoria New York in Manhattan. The accommodations run $4,000-$6,000 per night, hotel officials say, and feature souvenirs collected from past commanders in chief and security measures like bulletproof glass windows. Current and former White House officials have long considered the hotel and its staff as the best in the world at hosting the most powerful man in the world.
That may all be about to change. President Barack Obama is on track to skip the Waldorf this fall when he heads to New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, several officials told Yahoo News.
While the officials would not say so explicitly, they strongly indicated that the decision to reevaluate the historic relationship with the Waldorf was tied to the hotel’s sale to China’s Anbang Insurance Group, approved by U.S. regulators earlier this year. While Hilton will continue to operate the property for 100 years, one U.S. official linked the American decision to relocate the president to worries about Chinese espionage and to the announcement of an upcoming “major renovation” at the hotel that could provide an opportunity to install surveillance gear. The recent theft of millions of federal workers’ personal information, pinned on China, has fed the sense of alarm in Washington. China denies responsibility for the breach.
The Associated Press first reported that the State Department’s delegation to the largest diplomatic gathering in the world would stay away from the Waldorf , citing anonymous officials. State Department spokesman John Kirby has declined to deny that report, telling reporters, “I don’t have any venue decisions or any venue issues to talk about” during a daily briefing in mid-June.
But a knowledgeable official told Yahoo News last week that, if the decision is finalized, “none of the official delegation” from the United States to the U.N. would stay at the Waldorf. That delegation includes Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and hundreds of aides. The move would also apply to any “side events, like staff meetings, bilateral meetings with foreign officials,” the official said.
Officially, no final decision has been made on the matter. But another official shrugged off the public stance. “It may not be a ‘done deal,’ but it’s a done deal,” that official told Yahoo News.
American security and diplomatic officials have already carried out in-person assessments, known as “walk-throughs,” of the almost-certain replacement, the New York Palace Hotel, the official said.
One senior administration official insisted that “final decisions on U.S. venues for this year’s U.N. General Assembly events are still pending,” but noted that they would reflect “any possible security concerns.”
Another U.S. official steered Yahoo News to the State Department’s advice for Americans planning to travel to China.
President Barack Obama is briefed at the Waldorf Astoria for a bilateral meeting with President Hu Jintao of China in 2009. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)
It reads, in part: “Security personnel carefully watch foreign visitors and may place you under surveillance. Hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, Internet usage, and fax machines may be monitored onsite or remotely, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge. Business travelers should be particularly mindful that trade secrets, negotiating positions, and other business-sensitive information may be taken and shared with local interests.”
Of course, such long-standing concerns haven’t stopped successive U.S. presidents from traveling to China, accompanied by the traditional retinue of aides, Secret Service and press, although the White House does pack gear to thwart spying on the commander-in- chief.
No decision has yet been made about the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which has been on the Waldorf’s 42nd floor for decades, the officials said.
“There is a gold eagle over the apartment’s front door, the interior is spacious, and there are postcard views of Manhattan, including my favorite — the huge St. Patrick’s Cathedral looking almost toylike,” Madeleine Albright, who served as ambassador to the U.N. during Bill Clinton’s first term, wrote in her memoir “Madam Secretary.”
Anonymous officials discussing the planned change said the decision could affect hundreds of reservations on multiple floors for staff from the State Department, the White House and other agencies.
But the presidential suite is the crown jewel.
“The hotel has everything — parking for the motorcade, an underground arrival that makes security easier, a private elevator, the works,” a former Clinton aide told Yahoo News earlier this year in a piece on presidential hotel stays.
“They know what they’re doing when it comes to having a POTUS” (president of the United States), said a former aide to George H.W. Bush. “It’s set up for minimal disruption to the other guests at the hotel. They can shut things down, cordon things off for the president, and the hotel is still attractive and functional for the other guests.”
At one time, the hotel collected the Social Security numbers of nonpresidential guests even visiting the presidential suite, and prohibited taking photos. But the hotel has since put a high-definition virtual tour online, suggesting that it’s no longer necessary to keep it such a secret.
The master bedroom inside the presidential suite in the Waldorf Astoria. (Photo: Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)
FDR would arrive at that hotel via an underground rail station that linked Grand Central Terminal to the hotel. From there, the suite is a private elevator ride away. Today, presidents “limo right in (to the underground parking area), go right in the door, right up the elevator,” said the former aide to the elder Bush.
The library in the suite includes the complete “Sherlock Holmes” stories, the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” and Grimms’ “Fairy Tales.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s desk sits in the master bedroom. A rocking chair donated by John F. Kennedy is in the living room. There is bulletproof glass in the windows.
The elder Bush loved the hotel, in part because that’s where he lived during his two years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the former aide said. “People took such good care of him,” she added.
If presidents will miss those luxurious digs, the Waldorf sounds as if it will miss the annual influx of government employees.
A spokesperson for the property told Yahoo News: “It is always a privilege to host representatives of the U.S. Department of State, and we hope to have the occasion to welcome them back to the Waldorf Astoria New York when the opportunity presents itself.”