Washington DC Travelogue

An Insider Tour of our Nation's Capital

April 8 - 13, 2018

Jessica McCarthy

The LA World Affairs Council’s trip to DC couldn’t have been better timed to soak up the drama of the Beltway.  With the beautiful cherry blossoms in their full glory, the news stories kept flying – speaker of the House Paul Ryan, third in line for the presidency, announced he was stepping down.  We waded through a ruckus of reporters and aides outside testimony on the Hill by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.  And then there was the raid on the office and home of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.  As if all that was not enough, the week ended with President Trump ordering a missile raid on Syria.  With a packed schedule each day, the buzz of energy in our nation’s capital added an air of excitement, importance and pageantry that made this visit feel both historic and current.


Surprise dinner with the First Couple.

Four early birds got in on Saturday and joined me for dinner at the Trump Hotel. We were hoping for a glimpse of the eponymous owner, but little did we expect that he, accompanied by his wife Melania, would come in and sit down at the table right next to us for dinner! After waving at our group and others in the restaurant, the First Couple sat down to chat and laugh the night away, with the head chef checking in on them a couple of times, and several Diet Cokes being dropped off: our group of 5 had a front row seat to the whole thing which lasted almost three hours. Welcome to DC! Video of the First Couple's arrival here.

On Monday, we started the day with a meeting at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) who provided insight on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cryptocurrency, and how they focus on the health and safety of our banking systems, especially as almost all banking and loans are now handled digitally, requiring extra layers of security to avoid identity theft and fraud. Joseph Otting, the Comptroller, quoted a familiar saying of the banking industry which is that “The worst loans are made in the best of times,” and Toney M. Bland, Senior Deputy Comptroller for Midsize and Community Bank Supervision, noted “We are paid to be skeptical.”


At C-SPAN with Founder Brian Lamb.

Our group then headed over to C-SPAN to meet with Founder and CEO, Brian Lamb, a formidable force in the news industry as he turned a camera on the public events of our elected officials since 1979. C-SPAN makes 6 cents per viewer, where ESPN makes $8 per viewer, said Lamb. “The reason you see what you see on television is because it’s making money… There’s too much money being made by people reading or commenting on the news.” Regarding President Trump’s use of social media “Trump has control of Twitter and he’s having the time of his life.” He expressed his appreciation for past presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush for making themselves quite available, including President Reagan doing a program on C-SPAN with high school students. However, he noted that President Obama only came on C-SPAN once, preferring to go to 60 Minutes.

We headed to the United Arab Emirates Embassy for a lunch and talk with Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, who has been representing the UAE now for 7 years in DC. He spoke candidly about the events in Qatar, and the UAE’s response to it, in collaboration with Saudi Arabia. On Yemen he claimed “We wanted out of Yemen yesterday. Unfortunately the Yemenis have become the obstacle for us. Both the protagonist and antagonist don’t want a political solution in Yemen.” On Russia he said: “Russia tries to mess with you guys, and we’re stuck in the middle. I don’t know how long we can maintain neutrality with two countries that we have good relationships with.” On the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”) he said: “Imagine MBS for the next ten years, just based on the last two years. This is the most exciting and dramatic thing happening in the Middle East.” Regarding his relationship with Jared Kushner he said that he doesn’t think Kushner has been given fair coverage, and said that Jared comes to the Ambassador “for consultation. Not to tell us what to do.”

From there, we met with Danielle Pletka, Vice-President for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who gave us an overview of US foreign policy and congressional defense priorities. On Iran and the JCPOA, she noted “Front loading all the cash to Iran, basically we completed our responsibility, and if we pull out of JCPOA, it signals to Iran that they don’t have to do their part. When Obama signed the JCPOA, he said it would slow their nuclear development and we’d focus later on terrorism funding, missile development, etc. and now we’re doing less than we were before. The Iranians come to work every day, and we just don’t. Iran is picking off low hanging fruit - Lebanon, Yemen.” On defense spending – “Congress has a lamentable habit of changing their minds on defense spending.” For example, “The tanker that refuels our fleet, a 707, has less digital technology than my phone. Everything is analog.” On Israel and Gaza – “The tragedy for the Palestinians is that things are really fine for Israel… They have lost the Arab world…The US has been indifferent to Palestinian leadership, policy, the people. We’re focused on the peace process only.” On MBS – “When I hear him say ‘I want a prosperous future for my country’ and someone asks about Israel and he says ‘How can we talk about the Middle East and not talk about Israel?’ that’s progress.”


LAWAC Member Micheal O'Leary at the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

From there, we took a private guided tour of the Veterans Memorials along the Mall, including the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This is something one needs to experience for oneself. It's hard to describe in words what it feels like to stand against a wall with names of those lost, or the faces of those that have passed staring back at you in cold marble.

That evening, we met with John Russell, a lobbyist from Dentons, the world’s largest law firm. Like many in DC he noted “I wake up at 5:30 a.m. not to check the stock market, but to turn on my phone to see what he (President Trump) has tweeted and what direction my day will take.” He’s noted that following the 2016 election of President Trump, he’s seen a huge surge in interest to run for political office “We’ve never had more women running for Congress,” however, he notes “Many are running because they say ‘I am anti-Trump.’ He’s not on the ballot, but the 2018 election is all about him (Trump).” On General James Mattis “He is the warrior monk. He doesn’t have television. He reads a lot. He’s very cerebral. And he chooses his battles very wisely. He’s not the Trump whisperer, but currently, he carries the most weight.” Russell noted that if you want to keep Trump on message, ensure General Mattis is nearby.

That was Day One.

On Tuesday morning, we were joined by Congressman Adam Schiff’s Chief of Staff Jeffrey Lowenstein who opened with “In March 2017, James Comey testified, and then things went crazy.” He said that the recent sanctions against Russia were the most significant and effective thing that could have been done. On North Korea – “We know shockingly little about what that will be, where that will be, but we’re happy that we’re talking. North Korea is not looking for unilateral disarmament, because they have seen how having a nuclear arsenal has worked for them.” On the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) – “We can’t completely separate the Iranian and North Korean negotiations. If Trump walks away from JCPOA that Obama signed off on, North Korea will be watching.” On Rex Tillerson’s dismissal “All decision making at the State Department was being funneled up to the Secretary’s office, including the most menial decisions, which is a hard way to run a 20,000 person organization.”

We then had a behind-the-scenes tour of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately the Justices were out for the week, but our guide shared details and stories about the court and past Chief Justices, including the story of the “Judicial Handshake” a tradition dating back to the 19th Century introduced by Chief Justice Melville Fuller, in which all Supreme Court justices shake the hands of the other eight justices every morning before entering the courtroom “as a reminder that differences of opinion on the Court did not preclude overall harmony of purpose.” Judicial branch… Check!

From there, we proceeded to a tour of the East Wing of the White House. The building was filled with old and young, foreign visitors, school groups and veterans.  I heard one young woman comment on how small it was, and it’s true, as grand as its history is, it’s not quite a Versailles or Buckingham Palace. The gathering of historical pieces that Mrs. Kennedy retrieved to fill the home so that visitors might get a sense of what this building might have felt like throughout the past centuries made me wonder how this space would be updated in 100 years, 200 years. Will it hold a worn executive chair and an iPhone, a flat screen with Fox and Friends on repeat? Executive branch… Check!

From the White House, we headed to the US Capitol, which was buzzing with excitement, including some protestors on the lawn nearby. Inside the Senate Gallery, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was answering questions about his company’s use of data mining and microtargeting which provided user’s data, as well as that of their friends, to third parties, including political campaigns. There was a line to get into the Senate so unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see him in the hot seat, but we did get an incredible tour of the hallowed halls of the Legislative Branch… Check!

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Jessica McCarthy in front of The Supreme Court, The White House and the group headed to the US Capitol.

We then went to the Woodrow Wilson Center, to meet with President Jane Harman and Robert Litwak, Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies. Harman spoke about the struggles of partisanship in DC saying “You have to make friendships with people on the other side. I don’t know what party you’re in, I don’t care what party you’re in, be for a working government.” They’ve also focused much of their research on Cybersecurity, which has become a growing concern in policy but of which many in leadership have little experience. Litwak talked about Iran and said that because the JCPOA is a multi-lateral deal with other countries, not just between the US and Iran, “If we withdraw, it will make it Iran and the world versus the United States.” He also said that if and when President Trump meets with Kim Jong-Un, the JCPOA/Iran Model will play a part, as they will be watching to see if the US is prepared to stick with any agreement it has made.  He said that even in the best of cases North Korea won’t roll back to zero on its nuclear program, but negotiations on capping or freezing seem feasible.

We ended the day at the National Labor Relations Board, with William Emmanuel, where the talk was about labor law and the ongoing struggles between employers and unions. That evening we had dinner at the National Press Club, and we had hoped to have a talk from Brian Bennett, who was on his second day as Senior White House Correspondent for TIME. But unfortunately, he had to “crash” a cover (write the main cover story in 24 hours) on President Trump. Things move fast in DC!

You can read it here - http://time.com/5237454/donald-trump-relied-on-michael-cohen-to-weather-the-storm/

Wednesday morning we headed to the State Department, the day before former CIA Director Mike Pompeo would go into his Senate confirmation hearing to determine whether he would take on the role of Secretary of State to head up this organization. We met with Deputy Assistant Secretary Walter Douglas, from the Bureau of East Asian Affairs, who claimed that “We have a White House that is fully engaged in southeast Asia,” noting President Trump’s 13 Day Asia tour. Douglas said that Trump doesn’t like multi-lateral trade agreements. He noted that when Trump meets with foreign leaders, the first half of his meeting is on our trade relationship, whereas past presidents tried to shove trade talk in at the end. On China’s expanding influence throughout the Pacific, Douglas noted that New Zealand is coming out of 30 years of hiding and that Australia is now becoming keenly aware of the Chinese influence within their own borders, and that they may move towards the same campaign finance laws as the US to prevent foreign donations to campaigns there. He said that it appeared that China is not going to be a part of the “community of nations”, especially with China’s President Xi Jinping removing term limits. However, everyone likes Chinese money. Soft power, however, was still a strong advantage of the US. 

We were then joined by Deidra Avendasora, who works in the State Dept on international law as it applies to cyber space, cybercrimes, and internet governance. She described how there can be an international dimension to cyber activities even when both people are Americans as the internet and data can transmit information globally from sender to recipient through proxy servers. She described the programs they have to identify signatures on malware so they can attribute them back to the hackers or state actors involved in a cyber attack, including a program called Hidden Cobra (yes, not so hidden), which verified that the WannaCry ransomware came through North Korea. When asked what keeps her up at night, she expressed concern for the safety of industrial control systems where software does something physical (ie open or close a dam, turn on or off a nuclear reactor).

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Meeting with DAS Walter Douglas before visiting the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms including the Benjamin Franklin Dining Room.

We headed to the Rayburn Building where Mark Zuckerberg was now meeting with Congress, and there was a two block line out the door waiting to get in to watch it and press everywhere. This time we were meeting with Congressman Ed Royce (Rep), but as we walked down the halls, we passed Congressman Ted Lieu of the 33rd District. These chance meetings are probably the equivalent of celebrity sightings in LA. Royce also talked about the need to transcend partisanship, and said that, as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he insisted that on overseas trips his Republican and Democratic committee members fly on the same plane and sit next to each other.  “After a 14 hour flight to South Africa you are going to get to know the person next to you pretty well!” On Iran, he said the US should not scrap the JCPOA nuclear deal, but  bring in a separate sanctions regime to stop their ICBM developments – “but we should do it with the Europeans, rather than end up with the US isolated on this.”

Thursday morning we headed to the CIA. Yes, the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Early drama: our bus driver, Greg, cautiously turned the bus around on a narrow road, having had the bus suddenly closed in upon by a band of armed guards when he made a wrong turn.

We first met with Rob, who will soon be heading to Los Angeles to take on his role of Chief of the CIA here. He was walking between the two towers on 9/11/2001 when the planes hit and which inspired him to apply to the CIA. When we sked him how we would find him in Los Angeles, he replied “I think I’m supposed to find you.” We giggled nervously. That response from anyone else wouldn’t have felt quite so loaded.

We then met with Andrew Hallman, a “lifer” at the agency as he’s been there for 29 years. He was hired for his critical thinking skills at the Office of National Intelligence. He was the first intelligence briefer to President Obama. He discussed the increasing threat environment to governments and individuals through social media and online, where they used the cyber domain as a vector to attack us, and affect democracy. He heads the most recent addition the CIA, the Directorate of Digital Innovation, which extends the CIA’s reach through digital and cyber operations. He noted “I haven’t slept in two years. There was no playbook for creating this division.” However, acquiring talent for this work is another matter. He goes to Silicon Valley where he works with tech companies to find talent, and recruiters remark to him that programmers routinely express interest in working for the CIA saying that they have “a good brand,” and after working for a start-up that may or may not have succeeded, working for the CIA gives those individuals meaning. “In this work environment, we get the best and the brightest. Those who apply have a deep sense of mission.” On Russia, he said that Putin’s actions are disturbing, but also said Russia is just repeating its history of doing this. When asked whether Russia was increasing its intelligence assault on the US, or if it was just getting more news coverage, he replied “our intelligence assessment of Russia is classified… but let me say you are asking the right question.”


Lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA.

We then proceeded to a tour of their headquarters. If you’ve watched any spy thriller, you’ve seen the lobby of the CIA with the gigantic seal inlaid in the ground. And off to the right, there are stars etched into the wall, each representing an agent who didn’t return from his or her mission. New employees take their oath in front of the stars and are asked that they “Bring their best because those on the wall deserve it.” The stars are carved out of the wall, not etched, as they stand for a part taken away from the agency.

We then proceeded to a gallery of old spy technology, a model of the Abbottabad compound, info on how Howard Hughes ran cover for the CIA to retrieve a sunken submarine, and some interesting explanations on UFO sightings which were in fact secret CIA flight tests.

We then headed to a private guided tour of the Pentagon, which is like a small city. It’s large enough that the USPS set up 6 postal codes for it, and has an employee population of approximately 25,000+. Because the building was built during a time of racial segregation, the building has twice as many restrooms and drinking fountains as a typical facility of its size would be required to have. We visited the site of the 2001 impact, and where a small memorial room has been erected. In the central outdoor open area, nicknamed “Ground Zero,” is an area of relaxation where salutes are not required, as the number of employees passing one another would result in some employees never being able to put their arms down. They also had some of the largest bumblebees I had ever seen, and I’m not entirely sure they weren’t some new tech being tested out for surveillance.

We ended our tour with a trip to the revered ground of Arlington Cemetery. With 400,000 graves, the cemetery is running out of space, and the requirements to be buried there have been increasingly tightened. We walked up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and observed the Sentinels taking their 21 steps, 21 second observance over the tomb. This process has been performed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since July 2, 1937. It’s hard to state what it feels like to observe the dedication and focus of these tomb guards, to look out over acre after acre of monuments to those who have served and passed. Having family who have served in several wars, past and current, there’s a sense of gratitude that their legacy is honored, and also a frustration that wars continue to place them in danger. What happens when Arlington runs out of space?

As I walked past the White House that night on the way back to the Hay-Adams hotel, there were people outside protesting against an attack on Syria, against negotiating with North Korea. After 17 years of war in the Middle East and with escalating tensions in Asia, I wonder how those that we’ve met over this past week will work to guide and inform the policymakers who maintain our relationships with our allies and seek to relieve the friction with our adversaries. I wondered how we as citizens can stay engaged and informed about what’s happening abroad and ensure that those in power know our values and what we stand to lose if they give up on those core principles. It’s a big job, and there’s a lot of noise in this town, but there are the reminders on the Mall of what we stand to lose and of what our country can represent. We see the large number of school groups coming to the capital as proof that a new generation might get it right, but I’d prefer we get it right for them, and that we won’t look on peace and civic duty as fleetingly as the bloom of the cherry blossoms.


Cherry blossoms at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown.

See more photos from this tour and other events and travel programs on our Instagram.