Updated on October 5, 2020 at 7:04 p.m. ET.
On any given morning, the White House is a blur of activity. A chef may be whipping up breakfast for the first couple in the second-floor kitchen. A valet might be shining the president’s shoes, while the head butler lingers in the West Sitting Hall, awaiting any urgent presidential requests. Housekeepers, maybe a dozen of them, could be deployed throughout the building, vacuuming, polishing, and dusting. The White House florist might be arranging a vase full of lilies and hydrangeas, as painters touch up scuffs along the baseboards.
When Donald Trump returned to the White House today after his brief stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, these are the people he came home to. Trump and the first lady interact with dozens of White House employees every day, many of them nonpolitical and largely invisible to the American public. Because of his months-long failure to take COVID-19 seriously even inside his own home, Trump continues to place these staff members and their families at considerable risk. Which is to say that the blast radius from the president’s and the first lady’s illness could be a lot larger than many Americans realize.
“There are people behind the people,” Deesha Dyer, the White House social secretary under Barack Obama, told us. And “they don’t have the privilege of being Marine One–ed to Walter Reed” if they get sick.
Asked to describe the mood inside the White House, one staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his job, called the fallout from the Trumps’ diagnosis “a huge mess.” He found out about the president’s and first lady’s illness through news reports. “That happens all the time in this administration,” he said. Other White House officials have also recently tested positive, including White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and two of her deputies. For now, the staffer said he’s “just waiting and worried for my friends and their families.”
Of all the employees working on the White House grounds, perhaps no one has more exposure to the first family than the roughly 100 members of the residence staff. Trump and the first lady (not to mention Trump’s political advisers) have rarely worn masks, and each time the president has held a rally or speech outside the White House, he’s created opportunities for the virus to migrate inside the executive mansion. (That’s especially true if the president’s personal testing regime has not been as stringent as the administration has led the public to believe.)
While it’s unclear whether residence staffers’ duties have changed during the pandemic, a handful of them usually work quite intimately with the president and first lady, namely the butlers, valets, and housekeepers. They ride elevators with the first couple, helping them get to their destination; they iron their clothes and change their sheets; they escort them across the White House grounds; and they deliver their meals. “The West Wing and East Wing, plus the whole residence operation—from floral shop to ushers to chef to butlers [to the] curator’s office”—are all going to be directly affected by the recent outbreak, Dyer said. (Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s chief of staff, said in a statement that “in consultation with the White House Medical Unit, all precautions are being taken to ensure the health and safety of the residence staff.”)
Most residence staffers have been in their job for years, some through multiple presidential administrations. “It’s a job you don’t leave,” says Kate Andersen Brower, who’s written three books about the White House, including 2015’s The Residence. Many of these staffers are people of color and, especially among the butlers, are more than 50 years old—two qualities associated with higher risk for COVID-19.
Describing just how experienced residence staffers can be, Bill Yosses, a former White House pastry chef, relayed a story to us from his first day on the job, in September 2006. An older staffer approached Yosses after seeing that he was holding leftovers in his hands. “You better save those leftovers,” the man told him, “because I remember that Mamie Eisenhower told me, ‘Never throw anything away.’”
Even in normal times, residence staffers are loath to talk with the press; they pride themselves on discretion. But now it’s even more difficult to reach them and find out how they are managing their jobs, Brower says. She says she recently interviewed former residence staffers who believe that current employees are in significant danger given their proximity to Trump—“they’re very worried about them.” In terms of residence staff’s dedication, Brower says, “They literally will put their lives on the line for this job.” Not only is a residence post prestigious, but many of these staffers need to work a certain number of years to receive their pension. They won’t risk being fired by speaking up about unsafe conditions or calling out of work, she says.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, communication about the virus within the White House has been vague and inconsistent. An email from the White House Management Office last night warning workers to stay home if they have symptoms was reportedly the first campus-wide email sent since the president got sick. No internal announcement was made about the two residence employees who reportedly tested positive for the virus weeks ago, the current staffer said. (According to the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, both of them worked in the housekeeping department on the third floor and did not come into contact with the president, but were asked to use “discretion” in discussing their positive diagnoses.) Throughout the pandemic, safety rules have not been evenly applied. “Most [nonpolitical] staff at the White House are required to wear masks,” the current staffer said, even as Trump and his political advisers have declined to wear them.
Those who protect the president may be as vulnerable as those who keep his household running. During Trump’s joyride yesterday outside of Walter Reed, Secret Service agents were locked in the car—one designed so that nothing and no one can get in—with him. In recent months, several agents have been forced to quarantine—after contracting the virus or being exposed to someone who has—while trying to keep up with the president’s travel schedule. “It’s been a real challenge for the service throughout this administration, but never before anything like this,” says Ned Price, a former special assistant to President Obama on the National Security Council. (Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Secret Service declined to specify how many agents have been exposed to the virus.)
The potential exposure of President Trump’s staff extends beyond Washington too: When Trump held a fundraiser Thursday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey—an event attended by more than 200 people—someone had to cook the food, serve the guests, and clean the place after it was over.
As Trump planned to return home today, staffers at the White House, from the groundskeepers to the butlers, awaited the return of their boss. The valets may have prepared his living quarters, laying out fresh clothing and making sure everything was just the way he likes it.
“I find it disturbing [that] people are being put at risk who really don’t have a choice,” Yosses said. Although some Americans may advise permanent White House staff or Secret Service agents to simply quit, “these are career jobs,” he explained. “They have families, they have mortgages, they have kids in school. I would hope that every effort is being made to protect their health, their families’ health.”