The first president in recent history to reside in the White House without his immediate family still seems wonder-struck by his new home.
He enjoys leading guests on trivia-filled tours, explaining that the Lincoln Bedroom actually served as the 16th president’s office and boasting about the historical importance of the antique furnishings.
“The president took us to every room and looked at every painting and talked about every bed and every carpet and every rug and every bulletproof glass,” arch-conservative provocateur and ’70s guitar hero Ted Nugent told the Detroit Free Press after dining with Trump in the executive mansion. “It was just awesome.”
On that same visit, President Trump bragged to Nugent about the specialties of the White House chefs; that night, he ordered up lobster salad, lamb chops and baked Alaska for dessert. (The meatloaf, which the president insisted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie try on another occasion, is another favorite.)
But the fact that Trump entertained Nugent’s party, which included Sarah Palin and Kid Rock, for four hours on a Wednesday night may indicate his hunger for company. Trump currently has more than 20,000 square feet to himself in the official residence on the second and third floor of the East Wing — at least until his wife, Melania, and son Barron move from New York to Washington. A spokeswoman for the first lady said that will happen this summer, once they pick a D.C.-area school and a redecoration of the residence is complete.
Out of view to the public, the family’s living quarters are intended to be a haven for presidents and their families. When the Obamas moved in, they left their own imprint — filling in an archway to make Malia’s room more private and installing dainty chandeliers in her room and her sister’s.
The same sort of accommodations will be made for the Trumps, who hired interior designer Tham Kannalikham to help them remodel the living space. They have a more formal style than their predecessors and turned down the Obamas’ offer to keep the wooden playset on the South Lawn that then-White House Chief Usher Stephen Rochon traveled to South Dakota to select for the girls in 2009.
The Trumps’ Manhattan penthouse is ornately outfitted in gold and marble. Their Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where the president and first lady have spent many weekends, is similarly decorated with gold leaf in the ballroom and centuries-old oak paneling in the club’s library. “The White House, by comparison,” said Barbara Res, a former Trump construction executive, “is rather tame, decorating-wise.”
“If he wants [the White House] to look like Trump Tower on the inside, we can do that, from the carpets to the floors, to making it gilded,” Rochon said.
When Trump moved into the White House, a permanent staff of 95 full-time ushers, butlers, chefs, housekeepers and other workers were waiting. They are getting to know the Trumps and trying to help them adjust to their new home, said Christine Limerick, the former executive housekeeper, who retired from the White House in 2008 but keeps in touch with friends who work there.
“The people that I have talked to said they have met both President and Mrs. Trump and said they have been more than gracious and kind so far,” Limerick said. She noted that the president’s solo time in the mansion has probably helped him get acquainted with staff.
Discretion is an essential part of these jobs, though, and the staff has been especially tight-lipped lately. Rochon said that even some of the more chatty members of the team have stopped replying to emails or simply send back, “We’re fine” to his queries about life under the new boss.
It is typical for new first families to hold the staff at a remove, and the Trump White House has been wary of disloyalty of any kind.
The early months of an administration are “always a time of building trust, and every president comes in, especially if you are changing parties, with an air of distrust, and the residence staff goes out of its way to say ‘We are not there as Republicans or Democrats. We are there are neutrals to serve the office of the presidency,’ ” said James W.F. “Skip” Allen, who was a White House usher from 1979 to 2004. “It is something that is inbred in every member of the residence staff. No matter what they see, no matter what they hear, they never talk about it.”
The staff is probably getting to know Trump’s quirks, said Limerick — every president has some.
“One of the most difficult things is finding out how much they want you to be around,” she said. “Oftentimes it is different between a president and first lady. Mrs. Reagan was comfortable with you being around working but wasn’t maybe so comfortable with conversation. When Mrs. Reagan was out of town, President Reagan loved telling the staff stories about old Hollywood.”
Res said she could not imagine Trump being wholly comfortable with a group of strangers in his living quarters. And another associate, who has worked for the Trump family for years but is not authorized to speak to the press, noted that “having a trusted face around is important to a person like Mr. Trump.”
Trump’s wealthy background might make him better prepared for life in the White House than a family like the Obamas, for whom having a large contingent of domestic staff was a new and unfamiliar thing. Trump has hotels across the country, and when he visits those properties, their substantial teams are at his disposal.
Still, being surrounded by staff is not the same as being surrounded with family, said Anita McBride, who was an aide to George W. Bush and chief of staff to Laura Bush.
“President Bush used to always talk about the comfort of family [and the] sanctuary of family,” McBride said, noting that some of Bush’s siblings lived in the Washington area and visited frequently. “Being in the White House at night can be lonely, but [the Trumps] seem to have found a way to work it out so far, which will make it even that much better for him when his family is there.”
The longtime Trump family associate noted that the president frequently traveled without his family before his election. So his current distance from his wife is “not that different.”
“They are together on the weekends, and that’s the sort of special time for them, and he always worked on the weekend” even before he was president, the associate said.
The president also has his oldest daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of them now working as White House top aides, living in Washington with their children. Trump’s other children and grandchildren came to town earlier this month for the White House Easter Egg Roll.
Perhaps to stave off the isolation of White House life — William Howard Taft called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “the loneliest place in the world” — Trump has filled up many of his evenings with working dinners, his aide Kellyanne Conway said during the early weeks of his administration.
Yet, Trump already seems to be finding his routine. He is known to turn on the television as soon as he wakes and watches more cable news once he goes upstairs to the White House residence in the evening. And he stays in close touch with friends, chatting on the phone.
He’s probably discovered the perk of the master bedroom phone — pick it up, and an on-call butler is immediately on the line. If he wants his favorite drink, a Diet Coke, it will be there in an instant.
“I am sure he is like the king of the castle,” said Allen, the former White House butler. “If the president stays up at night, there has got to be someone there if he needs something. . . . That’s the beauty of the White House. You just say, ‘I need,’ and we do.”