Thursday 21 February 2019

White House ticks along with a skeleton crew as president digs in

Quiet: Kellyanne Conway walks past the White House to an interview with Fox News yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Quiet: Kellyanne Conway walks past the White House to an interview with Fox News yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Darlene Superville

The US government shutdown is hitting home for President Donald Trump in a very personal way. He lives in government-run housing, after all.

Just 21 of the roughly 80 people who help care for the White House - from butlers to electricians to chefs - are reporting to work. The rest have been told to stay at home.

Even so, the shutdown doesn't mean Mr Trump is making his own bed or emptying the rubbish on the second floor of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he and the first lady live with their 12-year-old son, Barron.

The pared-down White House residence staff typically still includes a butler and a chef. Basic housekeeping continues. But forget fresh flower arrangements from the White House florist - that's hardly considered an essential service.

Mr Trump joked this week that because of the skeletal staff, his wife Melania might have had to make salads for members of the championship Clemson football team when they visited the White House on Monday. Instead, he shelled out for a mega fast food order of burgers, fries and pizza.

Still, the slim staffing may be contributing to Mr Trump's oft-expressed sense of loneliness about life in the White House during the longest closure in history.

"I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security," the president tweeted on Christmas Eve. The shutdown has thrown cold water on the White House social scene, turning the mansion into a museum with few visitors.

Selfies at receptions are out. Public tours of the famed Red, Blue and Green rooms are at a halt.

Until the Clemson players came through, Mr Trump had not hosted a large group at the White House since he and the first lady said goodbye to guests at their final holiday reception before Christmas.

Staffing is one reason. But it's also a matter of optics.

It simply would look bad for Mr Trump to continue hosting social events while about one-fourth of the executive branch he presides over has been forced to halt operations.

Congressional leaders and various groups of politicians have come by the White House from time to time to negotiate with the president and even shared a few meals there.

But in the absence of the larger catering staff, it fell to the Navy-run "mess" in the West Wing basement to prepare steak for a small group of Republican House members who had lunch with Mr Trump.

Since the shutdown began, he has put off travel to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, where he typically gets in daily rounds of golf and catches up with old friends.

He has scrapped his usual pattern of spending Christmas and New Year's at the resort, where he spends many weekends during the winter and hosts an annual Super Bowl bash. The White House hasn't said where he will be when it is played on February 3.

A military plane with the call sign reserved for the first family when the president is not with them landed in Palm Beach on Thursday night but the White House did not comment on who was aboard.

The 132-room White House and its priceless contents require 24-hour maintenance and monitoring, so mechanical and operations engineers and electricians are part of the skeleton crew, said Gary Walters, a former White House chief usher, the person responsible for managing the residence staff.

The shutdown also has trimmed the first lady's already lean East Wing staff in half. Just five of 11 aides are reporting to work, said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman.

While social events have been put on hold, planning for future events continues, such as the annual ball with the nation's governors set for February 24, St Patrick's Day festivities in March and the annual Easter Egg Roll on April 22.

Those events could still be cancelled or postponed depending on the length of the shutdown.

Mr Trump has said the government could be closed for a "long time."

Irish Independent

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