When the story broke in Golf magazine yesterday that President Donald Trump had told some golf partners, “That White House is a real dump,” many people expressed dismay, but the maids, butlers, plumbers, chefs, painters and dozens of other staff who make the White House run every day were appalled.
Though Trump’s office denied the comment to Golf (a Time Inc. publication), one former longtime staffer told me, “Any man or woman who cannot appreciate the history and significance of the White House Residence does not deserve to live there!” Another said, “It’s a terrible slap in the face to the hard-working, dedicated staff that keeps the Executive Residence spotless, and it is always kept in perfect condition!”
Bob Scanlan, a White House florist who worked at the mansion from 1998-2010, told me that he had to catch his breath when he read the story. “It’s hurtful,” he sighed. That is in part because of the pride and dedication and uniquely nonpartisan position. Staffers call their schedule “White House flex time” because they work such long hours that they jokingly say they get assigned 85-hour weekly shifts. Some say they have lost their families and social lives because of the strain of their jobs.
Chaos inside the West Wing has translated into a hyper-protectiveness among residence staffers. In two years of researching my book about White House staff, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, it was very challenging to get current staffers to talk, and I refrained from pushing too hard for fear I could cost someone their job. (No residence staffers are supposed to talk to reporters.) It is even harder now. One former staffer who keeps in touch with friends who still work there told me, “It feels like everyone is being watched.”
Of course the White House has some wear and tear, as most older homes do. But the White House belongs to us, as Americans, and the president and the First Lady are our tenants. The staff comes with the home. They stay from one administration to the next and they take immense pride in their jobs. Some First Family members have been more concerned about the White House’s upkeep than others. Laura Bush occasionally complained before visiting dignitaries came to town and asked the painters to do fresh touch-ups. “Laura Bush didn’t miss a thing,” Scanlan told me. “But her focus was pride in the house.” He said she would call staffers on things and “everyone would jump.”
As Scanlan says, that was out of pride not disdain. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, former President Barack Obama described being less-than-impressed when he first visited the White House as a senator. “The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from TV or film; it seems well-kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit drafty on cold winter nights.”
But he understood the incredible history that comes with the home: “Still, as I stood in the foyer and let my eyes wander down the corridors, it was impossible to forget the history that had been made there—John and Bobby Kennedy huddling over the Cuban missile crisis; FDR making last-minute changes to a radio address; Lincoln alone, pacing the halls and shouldering the weight of a nation.”
Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton took to Twitter after the story broke, “Thank you to all the White House ushers, butlers, maids, chefs, florists, gardeners, plumbers, engineers & curators for all you do every day.” Staffers told me she was always grateful for their work. In a May interview with TIME, Trump himself called the White House’s kitchen “beautiful,” its phone system “amazing” and its furniture “incredible.” “You have to be a certain type of person,” Trump said. “People have no idea the beauty of the White House. The real beauty of the White House.” Why the change of heart?
The White House is no dump. It has six floors with two small mezzanine levels; the entire complex is an astounding 200,000 or so square feet sitting on 18 acres in downtown Washington. Its grounds are cared for by the National Park Service. The 55,000-square-foot executive mansion is the main building, divided into public and private rooms with its ground and first floors open to the public for guided tours. The family’s private lives are lived on the second and third floors, which tourists never visit. One main corridor links the 16 rooms and six bathrooms on the second floor. Another 20 rooms and nine bathrooms are joined by a main corridor on the third floor. Maids, valets, and presidential children all have had rooms there.
The signs of wear in this home are important to our history, such as the worn marble steps on the grand staircase from the ground floor to the state floor used by presidents and leaders from around the world. “There is no way that the supervisors of all the different departments that keep the house running would cause a problem or issue to sit there without taking care of it. Between housekeeping, the painters,” Scanlan said. Maybe, Scanlan reasoned, Trump said what he said because he has not decorated the residence completely yet. It can take years to complete the effort, especially since the First Family brings in mostly their own furniture instead of pulling from the White House collection. The Obamas’ private bedroom was almost completely personal property, he said.
Nancy Reagan, who was famously hard to please, compared living in the White House to life in a five-star hotel. (The guest rooms do not have numbers on their doors, but they are known among the residence staff by their room numbers, just like at a hotel.) The aim of the residence staff is to keep up the mansion exceptionally well and to tend to the every need of the first family. Ushers work in two shifts; one group comes in before the President and First Lady wake up and someone is always on duty until they go to bed.
These people love their jobs, they do wonderful work for relatively little pay, and they do not deserve to be insulted. “If you’re having a little bit of a bad day with a member of the First Family or their staff, you step away from it and you look at the house,” said former Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick. “If I would see the White House lit up at night, I’d think, I actually work inside that building and I’ve had the wonderful privilege to do that. It could set my mind straight and I could deal with the next day.”
Scanlan wants to believe that Trump is rethinking his offhand comment. “I don’t think he thinks clearly before he speaks,” he said. But he says he will not be holding his breath for an apology.