White House Social Secretary Rickie Niceta’s first impression upon meeting Melania Trump: “She was whip-smart, she was strong, she was wonderful.” (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Before Rickie Niceta became White House social secretary, she had never met either Donald or Melania Trump. Never, in fact, even seen an episode of “The Apprentice.” By her own admission, she’s not political and certainly not partisan. But like everyone else in America, she’d heard all the stories.

And here’s what happened: When she sat down with the first lady, she decided within minutes that she wanted to work for her. And as she got to know the president, she says, she found him to be patriotic, loyal and gracious.

For the past four months, Niceta has been helping the couple entertain world leaders, politicians and other guests in the White House. Her job is outside the political fray, the calm eye of the hurricane that is the Trump administration. And she’s determined to block out the noise as much as possible and create a relaxed “presidential” atmosphere for the first family and every person who walks through the door.

“It’s not that I’m in denial that there’s a whole part of this that I’m just not part of,” she says. “But when I bring the president into this space, politics are left at the door. And he is the best version of himself for everyone around him. If they could see what I see very often, it would be wonderful.”

That’s a hard sell. Millions of Americans can’t see anything positive about this deeply divisive president, although even some critics concede that Trump can be charismatic and charming in private, if and when it suits him. Then again, Niceta likes everyone she meets.

“I always get that,” she says with a laugh. But yes, she is relentlessly optimistic, quick to forgive and determined to find something admirable in everyone. “You know, it’s so much easier to focus on the good.”

For 23 years, Niceta worked at Design Cuisine, one of Washington’s top caterers and event planners. She worked with presidents, diplomats, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans. She’s well-known and well-respected, with a long list of devoted clients to whom she’s equally devoted.

So the past few months have been challenging and, well, kind of weird. Traditionally, the role of social secretary is the least controversial in the White House. But in an administration plagued by controversy, she has been criticized merely for accepting the job, primarily by people who don’t ask her why she took it or whether she likes it. Her standard answer: “I’m really sorry that you feel that way.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that response: her general sense of decorum and good manners. Her genuine affection and respect for the first lady. Her feeling that the president has been unfairly portrayed in the media. And an unalloyed belief in what it means to serve in the White House, regardless of party and politics.

“That really matters to me,” she says. “I don’t like people who don’t respect the office of the president.”

One former client greeted her effusively at a party earlier this year, unaware that Niceta was now at the White House. “What?!” cried the woman, shocked. “You work for Trump?

Replied Niceta: “I work for the president.

Niceta auditioned for the job — unknowingly — during the inauguration.

As a senior account executive at Design Cuisine, she was in charge of both the official luncheon at the Capitol after the swearing-in and a number of events hosted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. For the PIC luncheons and dinners, she worked closely with Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a New York event planner and senior adviser to Melania Trump.

“When you’re planning an inaugural, it’s like you’re in a war together,” says Niceta. “You can’t help it. It’s a bonding experience.” That undoubtedly influenced her ultimate selection as social secretary, even though it never even occurred to her that she was a possible candidate.

The first lady was looking for an experienced Washingtonian for the job, someone familiar with the nuances of the nation’s capital. The name of Natalie Jones, former deputy chief of protocol under Barack Obama, had been floated but not finalized. It wasn’t until late January that Lea Berman, social secretary for George and Laura Bush, called Niceta to say that she had recommended her. “Me?” Niceta answered, surprised. “Are you sure?”

The truth is, she has never engaged in the hand-to-hand combat of Washington politics, which some friends think could be a liability at the White House. On the other hand, she is professional, detailed, and “really unflappable, which is why I thought she’d be a good social secretary,” says Berman. “And I knew she would get along with the residence staff, which is part of the job that is often underestimated.”

Niceta flew to New York and made her way through layers of security to the 66th floor of Trump Tower. As she stood in front of the massive gilded doors of Trump’s penthouse, the first lady answered the door.

This was Niceta’s first job interview since 1994, but she says she and Melania hit it off immediately. “She was whip-smart, she was strong, she was wonderful,” Niceta says. “I thought, ‘You bet I’ll work for you.’ ”

Niceta “is a professional in all that she does,” says the first lady. “I was impressed by much of her past work and continue to be impressed today. She is a true asset to the White House.”

The first lady at February’s Governors’ Dinner in the East Room of the White House, the first major event Niceta organized as social secretary. (Chip Somodevilla / Pool/European Pressphoto Agency)

Melania Trump knew that Niceta had worked for both Democrats and Republicans, but they never discussed politics. They talked about upcoming White House events: the governors’ dinner, the Easter Egg Roll, entertaining dignitaries and other visitors. It was clear, says Niceta, that the first lady had already put a lot of thought into her new role: “She talked about the importance of tradition,” embracing the history of events but asking if and how they could be improved. By the end of the interview, they were negotiating when Niceta could start.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Right after the inauguration, Niceta, 47, and her husband of 11 years, investment adviser Thomas Lloyd, had a heart-to-heart about the future. She had been working full-time for more than two decades. Their children were 9 and 7, they were renovating a new house, and they were financially secure.

“He basically said, ‘It’s time. You’ve done it all. I want you to feel like you can spend more time with the children,’ ” remembers Niceta. She told him, “I don’t know how not to work.” But the timing made sense.

Four days later, she heard from the White House. Her first call was to her husband: “Tell me what you think. And be totally and completely honest,” she said.

“Well, you’ve got to do it,” he answered. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely!”

“She’s a better person, happier, more fulfilled, when she’s working,” says Lloyd.

And it was the opportunity of a lifetime. She took the job.

In many ways, everything in her past was preparing her for this moment.

Anna Cristina Niceta — everyone calls her Rickie — was born in Milan, to an Italian doctor and an American housewife. She grew up in Westchester, a wealthy suburb of New York City, with all the trappings of affluence, including private schools and summers abroad. She spent part of every year in Sotogrande, Spain, where her aunt and uncle (a former chief executive of Citibank) had a second home and entertained guests such as Aristotle Onassis.

“My aunt was divinely elegant and a wonderful hostess,” Niceta says. “I never once saw her in pants.” She taught her niece how to throw a beautiful party: flowers, lighting, preparation and attention to detail.

And her uncle taught her the art of simplicity: He once brought cans of Cheez Whiz from New York and served it to the Spanish royal family. “Watch this!’ he said excitedly,squirting the spread onto crackers. “It’s delicious!”

After graduating from the all-women Hollins University in Roanoke, Niceta worked as a private secretary in London. At 24, she moved to Washington and landed a position as an assistant at Design Cuisine. She stayed for 23 years, rising through the ranks and planning thousands of high-end events.

“She was a natural,” says company co-owner Bill Homan, who was thrilled when she was offered the social secretary job and thinks she’s well-suited to the demands of the White House. “She’s very kind,” he says. “In this business, you’re dealing with all kinds of personalities, and personalities under all kinds of pressure. She’s there to hold your hand and make sure you’re comfortable, to tell you, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and make sure it all works.”

The White House announcement touted her experience working with every top official in Washington, as well as her historic connection to the executive mansion. Niceta is married to the grandson of Bunny Mellon, the late philanthropist and close friend of Jackie Kennedy’s, who helped design the Rose Garden.

Although she received a large sapphire and gold ring from Mellon as a “welcome to the family” present, Niceta didn’t meet her until her wedding in 2006. Bunny, then 95, didn’t influence her sense of style; she simply reinforced Niceta’s old-school sensibility.

“Nobody can say I’m hip,” she says. “When Bunny came into my life — and I always called her Mrs. Mellon, because that’s how I was raised — she would say, ‘Nothing should be noticed.’ It was just an effortless elegance that made people comfortable and happy. That’s what my aunt did, That’s what I love to do.”

And that is what she wants to do with the first lady. “I think it’s really important to take care of people,” she explains. “I never wanted to let my clients down. I don’t want to let the first family down. And I don’t want to let the person who has a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to the White House down.”

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump blow the whistle to begin the 139th White House Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The job of social secretary, which comes with a salary of $119,723 and the title of special assistant to the president, was hard at first. Not because of the turmoil in the West Wing, but because of “my lack of confidence,” says Niceta. After years of knowing exactly what to do in almost every situation, there was still a learning curve at the executive mansion.

The stream of negative press hasn’t helped, such as the stories about the Easter Egg Roll that questioned whether the White House could pull it together in time. In fact, the first lady discussed it in January, telling Niceta that she wanted to scale back to be “much more special by being smaller, and I want a lot of military.” Niceta was working on the event when headlines like “Does the White House even know there’s an Easter Egg Roll?” started popping up.

“Of course we know,” she says. “That’s the painful part about the job. You read things that are absolutely not true.”

And the articles about whether the first lady would stay in New York have been frustrating. “She was always moving,” says Niceta, who speaks to Mrs. Trump daily. “It was never a question. It’s gotten to the point now where it’s annoying. At first, I was incredibly defensive and protective of her. Now, it’s boring.”

The first lady, she says, has already been to a number of events in Washington, is hiring more staff for the East Wing and plans to live here full time after Barron Trump finishes his school term. “She follows traditions. She wants to be part of what the first ladies have done.”

In the meantime, they’re setting the stage for entertaining at the Trump White House. It’s too soon for a state dinner — the Obamas didn’t hold their first one until 10 months after the inauguration — but there have been a number of smaller dinners for heads of state and other visitors.

There are no “plus one” invitations; the first lady wants everyone invited by name to make it more personal. And although couples are traditionally split up at formal dinners, they’re keeping the Obama model of seating them at the same table, because the first lady believes that couples should be able to experience a dinner at the White House together.

All this — what passes for the normal, unnewsworthy life of any White House social secretary — is Niceta’s goal. Whether she’s able to achieve it is another story.

“It truly is an honor to serve this country,” she says. “I really want to rise to the occasion.”