On Day 34 of the government shutdown, with federal workers set to miss their second straight paycheck on Friday, the Trump administration was prominently represented by two denizens of Wall Street: Wilbur Ross and Larry Kudlow.
Ross, the commerce secretary, on Thursday morning bemoaned air traffic controllers, who he incorrectly said were calling in sick, and added in a CNBC interview, “I don’t really quite understand why” federal workers were visiting food banks. Instead, he suggested they apply for loans from banks.
Then came Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, who called the shutdown “just a glitch.” He went on in a midday gaggle with reporters: “Am I out of touch? I don’t think I’m out of touch. I’m addressing the problem. I’ve met with my individual staff members and God bless them. They’re working for free. They’re volunteering. But they do it because they believe government service is honorable and they believe in President Trump.”
The twin appearances underscored a tone-deafness that has appeared more pronounced in the Trump administration as the plight of about 800,000 unpaid federal workers worsens. And it has become a fresh vulnerability for Democrats to exploit at a moment when polls show Trump already losing the public opinion battle over the shutdown.
“Is this the ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked Thursday. “Or, ‘Call your father for money’? Or, ‘This is character-building for you. It’s all going to end up very well just so long as you don’t get your paychecks’?”
Late Thursday afternoon, Trump sought to tamp down talk that his administration lacked empathy, singing the praises of federal workers.
“I love them,” Trump said during a meeting in the Cabinet Room. “I respect them. I really appreciate the great job they’re doing. Many of those people that are not getting paid are totally in favor of what we’re doing.” The president offered no evidence to support his claim.
For a president who brags of being a billionaire and for an administration stacked with wealthy Cabinet members, the tone conveyed about languishing government workers is only the latest example of senior officials seeming out of touch with everyday Americans. In the first year of Trump’s presidency, for instance, several senior officials were accused of improper use of government aircraft or other extravagant expenses.
As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) asked on Twitter, “Have none of these people ever known someone who was broke?”
Asked Thursday about Ross’s comments, Trump said, “Perhaps he should have said it differently.” He said his commerce secretary was trying to say that beleaguered workers would be given breaks by local businesses.
“Local people know who they are, when they go for groceries and everything else,” Trump said. “They know the people, they’ve been dealing with them for years, and they work along.”
As each week goes on, the shutdown’s impact becomes more acute. Close to half of the unpaid federal employees are required to continue coming to work. Those who are required to keep working cannot file for unemployment benefits, and many have said they cannot afford child care or commuting expenses while they aren’t being paid.
Trump has made no appearances at area food banks or other gathering places for furloughed workers, nor has he used the bully pulpit of his office to spotlight their basic struggles.
He also has rarely mentioned workers in recent meetings. In a Jan. 15 call with surrogates, he blamed Democrats for them not being paid and made no suggestions for helping them, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.
In meetings with conservative leaders and economic advisers this week, Trump has worried that the furloughed workers could hurt his economic accomplishments, according to two people who have spoken with him. And at a recent Senate lunch, they said, he talked about the importance of making sure Coast Guard workers were paid — but that has not happened. Like others interviewed, these people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Pelosi, by contrast, toured celebrity chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen in downtown Washington, which has been serving free meals to furloughed workers. And Democratic lawmakers across the country have invited media to see them interact with air traffic controllers and other constituents who are missing paychecks.
Trump has alternately cast federal workers as Democrats who would never support him; hostile members of the “deep state” who are determined to stymie his presidency; or patriotic Americans happy to work for no pay because they believe in his promise of a border wall.
In private conversations, Trump occasionally has called the shutdown a “strike,” suggesting workers were voluntarily not coming to work, according to White House aides and others in contact with him. The president also has asked what federal bureaucrats do, while showing particular interest in any shutdown complications for airport security and tax returns, aides said.
Trump has watched television news segments about workers being furloughed, but advisers have cautioned him that talking about the workers would only bring attention to the administration’s role in precipitating the shutdown, according to White House aides. Other advisers have urged the president to highlight federal workers in his remarks and show that he feels their pain.
Walking the narrow halls of the West Wing, more than half of the desks appear empty because assistants and junior staffers have been furloughed. Inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, there is “hardly anyone at all,” said one senior White House official.
But little in Trump’s daily life has changed, White House officials said. Food is still prepared for him by chefs and servants, and his coterie of Secret Service agents has remained the same. The president has only rarely left the White House since the shutdown began Dec. 22.
For Trump, the prolonged shutdown has become a political liability, according to recent polls showing more Americans blame the president than blame Democrats for the stalemate. Trump has fretted over his declining popularity, and one outside adviser recalled the president saying in a call this week, “I look weak.”
Trump’s aides are quick to defend the president and say he feels “a great deal of compassion,” in the words of one White House adviser who spoke about private discussions on the condition of anonymity. This adviser said federal workers are part of “every conversation and every consideration” inside the Oval Office.
Aides point out that Trump last week signed legislation ensuring that furloughed employees receive back pay once the government reopens.
In response to questions about Trump’s sense of empathy, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters issued a statement Thursday afternoon: “As the President stated yesterday, he and his administration have nothing but the utmost respect for federal workers. No one, particularly the President, want to see hard working Americans struggle.” The statement went on to blame Democrats for the prolonged shutdown.
But Trump made no such declaration of respect for the federal workforce — or even utter the word “worker” — in his public remarks on Wednesday.
The White House adviser claimed Trump regularly makes such comments in private meetings, even if he neglects to do so publicly.
Peter Wehner, a former official in the past three Republican administrations and a Trump critic, said the president is “lacking an empathy gene. This is a man who hasn’t shown empathy throughout his entire life, so to expect him to show empathy toward federal workers who are suffering is just not going to happen.”
Wehner suggested that another reason for the administration’s lack of emphasis on struggling workers during the shutdown is the Republican Party’s “deeply contemptuous” views of the federal bureaucracy and its inhabitants.
Trump and his surrogates have described the shutdown as a necessary sacrifice federal workers are making for a wall that the administration says is necessary to protect the U.S.-Mexico border.
In an interview Wednesday, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and campaign adviser, said federal workers were feeling only “a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country.”
Lara Trump was roundly criticized for the remark. In an appearance Thursday on Fox News Channel, she blamed the media for being “disingenuous” and said she was “incredibly empathetic towards anyone right now without a paycheck.”
The tone from Trump and some Cabinet secretaries has not been shared everywhere in his administration. Adm. Karl L. Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, has been particularly attuned to the shutdown’s impact on Coast Guard families.
“Ultimately, I find it unacceptable that Coast Guard men and women have to rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life as service members,” Schultz said in a video posted to his Twitter account.
Similarly, Transportation Security Administration Administrator David P. Pekoske did not blame his employees when many started calling out of work earlier this month because they could not afford to pay for child care or gas to come to work.
“TSA officers are resilient during this time, yet there is a rise in callouts from officers who say they are not able to report to work due to financial reasons,” Pekoske wrote on Twitter a few days ago. “I understand this & where necessary, we will exercise contingency plans using the resources & staff available.”
But so far there is little evidence that these leaders have brought their concerns directly to Trump or asked him to show more sympathy for the welfare of federal employees.
White House officials have also done little to acknowledge the much broader universe of U.S. workers who are being impacted by the shutdown and will never recoup their losses. More than 1 million people who work for government contractors, including cleaning companies and food vendors at federal buildings, have been directly affected by the shutdown, as well. Federal workers will receive their back pay when the government reopens, but contract workers will not.
White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett is one of the few to acknowledge the severe impact on workers.
“It’s demoralizing and a tremendous waste of human capital,” he told reporters Jan. 15. “You know, I myself am a federal worker. I’m working without pay. My staff is reduced to a skeleton. And I have many young workers who are having trouble making ends meet.”
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.