By: Ben T. Austin.
Think you’re anxious about the prospect of a Donald J. Trump presidency? Meet the staffers who would have to work for him. The author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies and a previous volume on the White House’s permanent employees paints an anxious picture.
▲ Family photo of Donald Trump. Donald Trump and his family would think that the mansion is too small, too old, and not glamorous enough for them, according to White House's former staff member.
Perhaps no one is watching the 2016 presidential race more closely than the nearly 100 permanent-residence staffers who work in the White House. Whomever the voters choose in November will become more than these staffers’ president—he or she will be their new boss.
The butlers, maids, cooks, plumbers, engineers, and florists who work at the White House have been here before, of course—every four years, actually. Residence staffers are devoted to the institution of the presidency and stay on from one administration to another, regardless of political party. Worthington White, who was a White House usher from 1980 to 2012, tells me, “I was an independent "Republicrat". I would say I voted for the president, no matter who it was.”
▲ Family photo of the Clintons. Clinton’s aides say that if she wins, First Gentleman Bill Clinton will not take on all of the traditional duties of the First Lady, which include picking out floral arrangements and china; instead, Clinton will choose a very experienced social secretary to do the job.
But they always keep one eye on the presidential election, and in hushed tones they sometimes even express opinions to each other. They watched the 2004 presidential election with great concern because they worried that John Kerry would win and that his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was deemed “a loose cannon” in the press, would be the First Lady. “It was going to be a potential nightmare—a nightmare you have to get up with every day,” says White.
Now, they worry about serving a different potential First Family. There is chatter in the locker room where the butlers keep their tuxes and in the staff kitchen where the maids, florists, and engineers gather for lunch. Like the rest of the country, they wonder about the chances of a President Donald Trump or a President Hillary Clinton. More precisely, they worry about spouses and attendants.
They would have the most interaction with Melania Trump and whomever Hillary Clinton chose as her social secretary. (Clinton’s aides say that if she wins, First Gentleman Bill Clinton will not take on all of the traditional duties of the First Lady, which include picking out floral arrangements and china; instead, Clinton will choose a very experienced social secretary to do the job.) When staffers say that a decision is coming from “the second floor,” they mean it’s coming directly from the First Lady, because the family’s private living quarters are on the second and third floors of the White House. The staff caters to their every need.
▲ London's fleet street is enjoying the fun of having the Trumps in the White House.
Residence staffers are government employees but they serve at the pleasure of the president and can be hired and fired at his or her discretion. Staffers say they are decidedly more concerned about a Trump victory than a Clinton win. Part of that is because they know what to expect from the Clintons, having served them for eight years (three of the six full-time butlers who worked in the residence when the Clintons were last in the White House will be the same if they return, according to one source); but former staffers and one current staffer interviewed for this article say it is also because of Trump’s rhetoric.
The president and First Lady must be willing to work with the White House curators and the White House Historical Association when they decide to make changes to the mansion, and staffers worry that Trump might not relinquish that control.
A former staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter (current residence staffers are not supposed to talk to reporters, and former staffers are discouraged from doing so, as well) says, “As far as I’m concerned, if asked, I would not go back to the White House for Trump, even if they tripled my old pay.” Roland Mesnier was the top pastry chef at the White House and served five presidents from President Jimmy Carter to President George W. Bush, but he says Donald Trump would be entirely different from any president he’s served. If he were still working at the White House, Mesnier says, he would be “nervous.”
“If the Donald makes it to the White House I think there’s going to be a lot of changes. I think the White House as we know it and the kitchen will be totally different,” he says. Trump is known to prefer well-done steaks and fast-food hamburgers to haute cuisine, but Mesnier points out that he also has access to the finest chefs in the world and that one of his hotels is opening up around the corner from the White House, in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. “I would be worried for my job, that maybe my job as I know it will disappear. . . . If the pastry chef quits, with one phone call he will have five chefs from his restaurants ready to replace him.”
▲ Donald Trump. Candidate for President. Residence staffers are devoted to the institution of the presidency and stay on from one administration to another, regardless of political party.
There’s been talk among current staffers about retiring rather than working for a polarizing Donald Trump. “I think a Trump election and transition would be a disaster,” says Christine Limerick, who was the head housekeeper during her tenure from 1979 to 2008. “I think that Donald Trump and his family would think that the mansion is too small, too old, and not glamorous enough for them. He might say, ‘Who cares about the history of the place or the fact that it has been the home of every president except George Washington? You don’t want to make the changes I want? You’re fired!’”
The staff served the Clintons for eight years and, as it was with George W. Bush and Laura Bush, who were frequent houseguests when George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were in the White House, they prefer to know the people moving in. Many of them are excited at the prospect of serving a First Gentleman for the first time in history. “There are people there who are tremendous Clinton fans,” says White, noting how protectively the residence staff watched over Chelsea Clinton as she grew up in the White House. “[The Clintons] will be greeted with open arms.” White insists, however, that the staff will put their personal politics aside, even though he estimates that almost half of them will be the same as at the end of the Clinton administration. Bob Scanlan, who was a White House florist from 1998 to 2010, says, “If I were still in the White House, I would be thrilled to work for Mrs. Clinton again!”
▲ Donald and Melania Trump. The transition to the next administration starts for residence workers about 18 months before the actual inauguration. White Hosue staff would have the most interaction with Melania Trump.
Former usher Skip Allen, who retired in 2004 after 25 years, says he wouldn’t want to work for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. “The Clintons can’t make up their minds about what they really want. You never knew what they were going to ask for or when they were going to ask for it.” Once, he says, Hillary called him asking him to tell the chef to stop serving a particular chicken dish. Within a month he got another call from the then First Lady: “We are really missing that chicken dish. Why isn’t it on the menu anymore?” Allen was at a loss, so he called the chef and asked him to add it back on. He says the Clintons were paranoid and had the phone system changed because they didn’t like having an operator connect them. The president and the First Lady wanted to make calls themselves so that no one could listen in. “They weren’t comfortable with the staff and I don’t think a second chance at the White House would make them any less insecure,” he says.
The transition to the next administration starts for residence workers about 18 months before the actual inauguration. The chief usher prepares books for the incoming president and First Lady that include a detailed White House layout, a list of staff, and what changes they are allowed to make to the Oval Office. While researching my 2015 book, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, former chief usher Gary Walters told me he would start gathering information on the candidates during the primaries, well before a general-election candidate was chosen. “The ownership is of the family that’s there, but you have to be watching out for what’s going to occur,” Walters said.
It’s safe to say that the current chief usher, Angella Reid, is preparing those briefing books for the next president and reading up on the likes and dislikes of the Trumps and the Clintons—and maybe even that of Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Bernie Sanders. After the election and before the inauguration, the chief usher tries to ready the White House by having the incoming First Family’s favorite things at the ready.
Former executive pastry chef Mesnier earned a reputation for figuring out what the president wanted very early on in the administration. Instead of listening to political advisers, who all claimed they knew what kind of food the president and the First Lady preferred, he would quietly approach family members who happened to be at the White House during the inauguration. Former executive housekeeper Limerick remembered receiving conflicting information from the many Clinton friends from Little Rock: “They told us that Mrs. Clinton used a certain type of shampoo and deodorant, and so we went out and we bought maybe 20 containers of this. I learned how stupid that was, because then she said to me, I remember standing there, ‘Chris, I don’t like this stuff.’” Mesnier heard that the Clintons liked bagels for breakfast, so he had the carpenters make a special bagel container out of Lexan clear plastic. That first morning when the Clintons woke up in the White House for the first time they had a choice of eight different, fresh bagels.
At the White House, the level of service can be off-putting. The Obamas found it especially difficult, at first, to get used to a staff waiting on them hand and foot—they had, after all, only recently paid off their student loans. “If you drop something on the ground, it’s picked up before you know it,” White says. Trump, however, is used to an entourage and a high level of service, so he might be more comfortable, White says. A 10-year-old Barron Trump will be the same age as Malia Obama was when her father became president, and would likely want to be left alone, like Jenna and Barbara Bush and Chelsea Clinton before him. “They just want to be kids,” White says. Staffers say that Michelle Obama didn’t want her daughters to be able to call for butler service—if they want something out of the kitchen, she told them, then go to the kitchen yourself. It is unclear how Melania Trump would behave as First Lady, but on the campaign trail she often talks about taking care of their young son as her top priority.
Residence staffers are so familiar with the Clintons that they also know all of the drawbacks to having them back in the White House. Their hours were so unpredictable that staffers never knew when their days would be over. If President Clinton decided to play cards all night, butlers and others would have to wait until he was done. They came to refer to his erratic and excruciatingly long hours as “Clinton Standard Time.” Hillary Clinton, however, was usually on time, and as First Lady, she was always working, if not in her office in the West Wing then in the residence. Lissa Muscatine, a close friend of Hillary’s who was a speechwriter for her when she was First Lady and a top adviser to her as secretary of state, says that she thinks Bill Clinton will love being First Gentleman.
“He’ll make it work. . . . He just connects with people so instinctively and so instantly,” Muscatine said. “I’m sure she’ll have an East Wing staff that takes care of a lot of the social side. He’s not going to sit there and pick the flowers for a dinner, obviously.” The staff might have the right shampoo waiting for the Clintons in their bathroom, but they will be entering unchartered territory if Hillary is elected. Former vice president Walter Mondale, who is a friend of the Clintons, mused in an interview, “How’s this going to work? . . . Bill is somewhat unorganizable . . .”