The first lady’s staff, which promotes her work, has been cut from 10 to five, according to her spokeswoman.
The effect of the diminished ranks was on display at President Trump’s Monday night buffet of fast food served to the visiting national college football champion team, the Clemson Tigers. No floral arrangements graced the buffet, where blooms crafted by the White House florist’s office would typically appear. The White House florists, alas, are deemed nonessential.
Chief usher Timothy Harleth, the residence’s top executive and manager, helped light a pair of ornate candelabras, taking on a job more often delegated to a butler.
Some functions that Melania Trump oversees have been shuttered entirely, including White House tours. The first lady has been particularly involved in the operations of the White House Visitor Center, aides have said. But since the shutdown began, there are no groups of gawking tourists filing through the executive mansion.
A call to the White House visitors information line directs callers with scheduled tours to contact the congressional office that arranged it. Congressional offices say they were informed that tours have halted during the shutdown and that people who had scheduled tours are getting cancellation notices.
Melania Trump’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said the first lady — who hasn’t held any public events this year — is spending the shutdown plotting out future events and the direction of her Be Best initiative.
“We are in the planning phase for 2019 in terms of ‘Be Best’ and annual functions at the White House,” Grisham wrote in an email. The first lady and her aides are “using this time for meetings and planning/strategy sessions.”
The White House residence staff, who typically serve across multiple presidential administrations, have been through shutdowns before. Former White House head florist Laura Dowling wrote about the 2013 shutdown, when budget disputes closed the government for days.
Dowling, along with “middle managers and curators,” had to vacate. “We had four hours to shut down our operations, retrieve flowers from throughout the White House complex, and clean out the cooler — and basically prepare for an unexpected hiatus when holiday preparations were in full swing,” she recalled in her book “Floral Diplomacy.”
Without her services, some White House officials were left to fend for themselves: When Dowling tried to remove flowers from the office of then-national security adviser Susan E. Rice, an aide objected. “He said they would take responsibility for watering them,” she recalled.
Other former White House staffers have criticized the effect of the shutdown on the residence staff, who are often beloved by White House aides and the first families themselves. The 21 members of the staff who are still at work are probably working without pay, like many furloughed feds, and won’t be paid until the government reopens and restores back pay, former White House staffers say. Grisham would not comment on whether the staffers were going without paychecks.
Deesha Dyer, the social secretary for the latter part of the Obama administration, posted on her Facebook page a much-circulated image of Trump showing off the burger-and-fries spread from Monday night. “This is so embarrassing, disgusting, and an utter disgrace,” she wrote. “God Bless the Residence staff who are the most absolutely amazing people and have become collateral damage in this mess.”
Stephen Rochon, who was the chief usher from 2007 to 2011, said it would be difficult to stretch the staff who manage a complex institution so thin. “It’s a tough place to run with only 21 people because everyone is very crucial, from the engineers, to the butlers to the electricians to the carpenters,” he said. “It takes every one of them to keep that house going.”
Social secretaries typically remain working through shutdowns, though. Former social secretary Jeremy Bernard recalled working through the 2013 closure, though many of his White House colleagues were not allowed to work.
The administration postponed some public events and limited others. Serving meals, he said, was out of the question, because there wasn’t the staff to prepare and serve them — and the optics of throwing parties during a shutdown weren’t good, either.
Bernard recalled having to go to a White House gate to double-check names on a guest list with the Secret Service, a task usually handled by an intern. (Oh, and Secret Service agents are also on the job and unpaid during a shutdown.)
Before a press event, Bernard said, he and the chief usher were frantically moving chairs in place. While staffers can multitask like that for a while, Bernard said, the impact of a White House that’s closed to the world is more consequential. Businesses nearby that rely on the flow of tourists suffer — and so does the public.
“It’s a shame, because there is this tradition that, no matter who was there, there was the honor of attending a White House event,” he said. “And you can’t do that on a skeleton crew.”
Melania Trump has not had an official appearance in nearly three weeks, an unusually long stretch even for a first lady who shuns attention. The day after Christmas, she accompanied her husband on a visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, where she greeted service members at the al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad.
She was later seen in social media posts from guests at the New Year’s Eve festivities at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where she mingled with friends and members of the exclusive club. Since then, though, the first lady has been out of public view.