No, President Trump is not living off Big Macs and Domino’s pizza during the partial government shutdown.
Well, wait, let me rephrase that: The president and first family are not forced to scrounge for their own meals — or have Postmates on speed dial — during the shutdown, the longest in the country’s history. During a shutdown, two staff chefs are deemed essential to the daily operations at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and their sole task is to feed the first family, said a former member of the White House kitchen.
What’s more, all special events would typically be canceled until the shutdown was over, said former White House chef John Moeller, so that the gatherings would not burden an understaffed kitchen. Which explains why President Trump had to order out — and foot the bill, too — when he served burgers, pizzas and fries to members of the Clemson Tigers national championship team.
Moeller, who worked in the White House kitchen from 1992 to 2005, was a sous-chef under executive chef Walter Scheib when the government was closed down twice between November 1995 and January 1996, including a 21-day stretch that was the previous record for the longest shutdown in U.S. history until the current stalemate between Trump and congressional Democrats. (Historical footnote: Moeller was the chef who introduced George W. Bush to the pretzels that nearly took down a president.)
Both Scheib and Moeller were deemed essential staff, Moeller recalled. Everyone else in the kitchen was sent home, including executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier. President Clinton, it seems, couldn’t have his cake and a furlough, too.
“We did some light desserts and fresh fruits” instead, Moeller said. “There wasn’t any grandiose desserts at that time.”
If the same pattern holds true for Trump, the president would have executive chef Cristeta Comerford and her sous-chef still available to cook the first family’s meals. A spokeswoman for first lady Melania Trump did not respond to an email requesting comment.
The way Moeller remembers it, Scheib handled breakfast and lunch during the two shutdowns from 1995 to 1996, the first of which lasted five days and a second that famously went on for three painful weeks. Moeller took care of dinner for the president, first lady Hillary Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea. “Then we swapped off [meals] to have a little time off,” Moeller said.
Frank Ruta, former chef and owner of the beloved Palena in Cleveland Park, was a White House chef for the better part of a decade, working under three presidents, including Ronald Reagan. The government shut down three times under Reagan, who repeatedly clashed with Congress over spending priorities. Ruta didn’t recall executive chef Henry Haller once sending him home during a shutdown.
“Nothing affected us whatsoever,” Ruta said. “All of us were in there working.”
Then again, the government shutdowns under Reagan never lasted more than a day. To Ruta’s memory, there were also no events scheduled for the shutdown days.
“If there was an event, I can’t imagine it was catered from an outside source,” said Ruta, former chef at Mirabelle in downtown Washington.
You can practically hear Ruta cringe over the phone when the discussion turns to the junk-food spread that Trump served the Clemson players. Ruta said college students already have constant access to that kind of food.
“Then they come to the White House and eat the same thing,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing.”