At White House, Empty Desks and Unpaid Bills as Trump Shows No Sign of Relenting

At White House, Empty Desks and Unpaid Bills as Trump Shows No Sign of Relenting


WASHINGTON — As the partial government shutdown took hold over the holidays, President Trump seemed to express wonder at being alone in the White House with little but the cheeriness of heavily armed guards to keep him warm for the better part of a week.

“I was waving to them,” Mr. Trump said just after New Year’s Day. “I never saw so many guys with machine guns in my life. Secret Service and military. These are great people.”

Mr. Trump’s “Home Alone”-like Christmas tale has hardened into a 20-day standoff as relations between his administration and Congress over his $5 billion demand for a border wall grow ever frostier. The White House has stopped paying its water bill. Desks of some furloughed employees, whose job can include such drudgeries as helping their bosses work the copy machine, sit empty in the West Wing.

And the Secret Service agents Mr. Trump was so impressed with, down to the officers who check IDs and wave black SUVs in and out of the gates surrounding the complex, are all working unpaid — everyone in the Secret Service is, according to an official at the agency.

However, the agency said, “those employees who are performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property, the majority of the Secret Service work force, must continue to report to work.”

With paychecks failing to fatten the bank accounts of some 800,000 federal workers, the pain of this partial shutdown bit into all corners of America — even the White House, where there is often very little sympathy for those whose job it is to keep Washington running. Only 156 of the Executive Mansion’s 359 full-time employees are allowed to report for duty because their work is considered essential, according to a government contingency plan.

But multiple administration officials have stressed this week that despite the shutdown, it is still business as usual. The janitors are emptying the trash and vacuuming offices. The Navy-run White House mess is still serving food — this week, chicken and dumpling soup was on the menu, after leaner offerings including fruit, nuts and other snacks were presented last week on an abbreviated schedule because of the new year.

Still, while Trump administration officials emphasize the normality, others who have endured lengthy shutdowns warned of the broader effects on the White House staff, including an inevitable slowdown in accomplishing important policy decisions with fewer workers.

“I don’t think people appreciate how isolated you feel,” Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications director for President Barack Obama and a former aide in the Clinton White House, which owns the current record — 21 days — for a shutdown, an unfortunate benchmark Mr. Trump is poised to pass if the impasse continues.

Ms. Palmieri said the two shutdowns she experienced were “distinct in my mind as extraordinary moments because there are so few people around and because the stakes are so high.”

During a shutdown during the Obama administration in 2013, Ms. Palmieri recalls that she and other workers were forced to bring in their own food, feed the occasional hungry reporter with instant macaroni and cheese fished out of desk drawers, and cart out their own trash.

Emptying her own trash was not her biggest concern.

“You can get caught up in winning this fight to the detriment of a lot of other policy,” Ms. Palmieri said, “and also your own political capital for the long term.”

Bracing for a fight has not always appeared to be a particular concern for aides in this White House, which tends to function in a state of personnel flux and operates with a trench-warfare mentality in the best of times.

At the center of the operation, after all, is a commander in chief who emphasizes the importance of never backing down, and Mr. Trump, who is said to be exploring ways to circumvent the need for Congress to provide money by declaring a national emergency — has given every indication that he doesn’t care how long this fight goes on.

But some of the president’s furloughed aides are among those who are not able to communicate with others using work phones or email, or seek outside income, rules that have spanned administrations. It all sounds familiar to Cody Keenan, a former speechwriter for Mr. Obama. Mr. Keenan recalled that he was able to continue commuting to his West Wing office during the shutdown in 2013, but many other staff members, including fellow speechwriters, most of whom were stationed in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, could not.

“Our teams were hit really hard,” Mr. Keenan said in an email. “My speechwriters were furloughed, and we were legally barred from contacting each other until the shutdown ended. Not being paid was especially hard on younger staff who didn’t have any savings yet. But there’s nothing you can do.”

Federal employees are counting on getting back their lost pay at some point, but contracted workers could face a different outcome. A spokeswoman for the General Services Administration said that facility managers — considered federal employees — and many contracted janitors and maintenance workers in some offices are still working, but was not able to say whether the contractors would eventually receive their pay.

“If they are contractors,” said Amanda Osborn, a spokesman for the agency, “their pay is determined by the status of their contract.”

Besides the issue of paying workers, other practical matters at the White House have been left unattended for now.

Days after the shutdown took hold, representatives from the Treasury Department left notice with DC Water, the Washington water utility, that the federal government’s $16.5 million quarterly water bill would not be fully paid, leading to a lively discussion among the DC Water Board about at what point a client’s water could be cut off, according to a report from the news website WAMU.

It turns out the board will let this one slide.

“We are not turning off water to the White House,” Vincent Morris, a DC Water spokesman, said in an email. The outstanding tab: $5 million.

Lengthy shutdowns can be disastrous for the White House for other reasons.

The last time a shutdown went on for this long, President Bill Clinton put himself on the long road to impeachment when he approached a young intern named Monica Lewinsky in an empty corner of the West Wing. Nonessential employees had been sent home, unpaid interns were brought in to work, and the rest is bitter history.

The Obama administration barred interns from coming to work during a shutdown, and the Trump White House’s new class of interns has not yet started, according to a senior official.

(“It’s a smart move not to” allow them in, Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Clinton’s former chief of staff during the shutdown, said in an interview.)

On Thursday, as the most recent shutdown approached the 21-day mark, Mr. Trump was grudgingly coaxed from the White House. He took a handful of people still working in the White House with him aboard Air Force One to Texas, where he met with border security officials and people whose lives had been affected by the scourge of illegal immigration, not a nagging shutdown.

At least seven senior aides were aboard the flight, including Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his press secretary; Bill Shine, his deputy chief of staff for communications; Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff; and Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser and architect of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies.

Some may have seen it as a way for the president to break out of his self-imposed shutdown isolation and learn about its effect on legions of federal workers, some of whom are back home, standing sentry on his front lawn. But Mr. Panetta warned that it might have had another effect.

“The primary danger is that the president feels that somehow whatever he’s doing he’s winning,” Mr. Panetta said, “and tries to tell himself that it’s the other side that’s going to break first.”



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