Four months in, President Trump has a startling number of big jobs to fill, from the head of the FBI to key diplomatic posts and top jobs in Cabinet departments — but closer to home, the inner sanctum of the White House is grappling with its own quieter state of flux.
Typically cut off from political turmoil, the residence has lost two senior staffers crucial to the daily operations and preservation of the historic home and all the demands placed upon it.
The jobs of White House chief usher and curator have come open and are waiting to be filled by the Trumps — an unusual occurrence in an institution where long tenures are typically prized.
On May 5, the White House announced that it had dismissed chief usher Angella Reid, who managed the nearly 100 people responsible for keeping the house running. Four days later, longtime White House curator Bill Allman, who had been thinking of retiring since last year, announced he was leaving the crucial post of overseeing the residence’s collection of more than 200,000 historic items.
Such back-of-the-house jobs are not often in the limelight but they are critical, said Stewart McLaurin, the president of the White House Historical Association, which works closely with both the curator and the chief usher.
“It is important for people to appreciate that there are functions and roles. . . that care for the White House over the course of time, no matter who is president,” he said. “The house, which has been around since the 1800s, is a symbol of freedom in America and around the world.”
The Trump administration emphasized that Reid’s departure had nothing to do with Allman’s retirement. The deputy usher is serving as acting chief usher, and Allman — who has worked at the White House for 41 years — will stay on as curator until June 1 and has an experienced team under him.
But the departures could be a challenge for the first lady, who will play a role in searching for replacements for these key jobs even before she moves to Washington and has a chance to adjust to White House life.
The chief usher functions as general manager, helping the first lady organize day-to-day activities and major events like state dinners, and overseeing the entire residence staff — the people who see first families at their most vulnerable.
Gary Walters, who was chief usher from 1986 to 2007, witnessed a brokenhearted George W. Bush stretched out on the White House lawn with his ailing springer spaniel, the night before Spot was to be put to sleep. His successor, Adm. Stephen Rochon, worked closely with a South Dakota manufacturer to custom design a playset for Barack Obama’s daughters. A member of Rochon’s staff saw the president and first lady jamming to Mary J. Blige on their first night at the White House, according to Kate Andersen Bower’s book “The Residence.”
These most senior jobs are often filled from within, Walters said. “You get familiar with the ways of the house and the family.”
The Trumps, who own and manage hotels, might be tempted to hire from the family business for chief usher. But Reid, brought in by the Obamas from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel group, was criticized by some who found her ill-suited to manage the large team of ushers, butlers, housekeepers and others — some of whom are from families whose members have worked at the White House for generations.
Three people with knowledge of the situation said Reid was not well liked by some on the staff she managed, but that it was a stark break with decorum for the Trumps to fire her suddenly.
The curator, meanwhile, is tasked with overseeing the art, furniture and decorative objects that are part of the house’s history. Allman’s retirement “means the White House is losing its institutional memory in terms of the history of the house,” said Betty Monkman, who worked with Allman when she served as curator from 1997 to 2002.
Allman helped Laura Bush restore the Lincoln Bedroom, consulting historical accounts to bring in new curtains, wallpaper and upholstery; and worked with Michelle Obama and her designer Michael S. Smith to update the Family Dining Room, adding abstract art and modern decor to its collection of antiques.
“Very early on I wanted to light candles on the mantel in the East Room. He kindly pointed out, very patiently, how curatorially that could not happen and why,” Smith said. “He understands that part of the magic and resonance is that this is a living house. It is not a stationary museum.”
Already, the Trumps have begun to shift the look in the White House to their tastes. After touring the house with Trump — who loves showing off the Lincoln Bedroom to visitors — Time magazine reported that “the modern art favored by the Obama family is mostly gone, replaced with classic oils, including portraits of Trump’s favorite predecessors, like Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump also personally paid for a large crystal chandelier in the president’s private West Wing dining room, according to the report.
Trump combed White House storage to furnish the Oval Office for his first day in office, removing the brick red curtains hung by Obama and replacing them with Bill Clinton’s gold swags. Ronald Reagan’s terra-cotta rug — designed with a central presidential seal with radiating rays — and George W. Bush’s two sofas and wood coffee table were also placed there pending a more extensive redesign. Meanwhile, the Trumps have tapped New York designer Tham Kannalikham, a veteran of Ralph Lauren Home, to redecorate the private quarters.
“They are both very interested in the history of the White House,” said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman. But as for now, two people who know a lot about that history won’t be around.