He’s sitting through glitchy conference calls, and friends say he’s thinking about his job security. Cabin fever amid the coronavirus pandemic has set in and tensions on the team are brewing. No one quite knows when it will end.
As Americans enter another week of self-isolation, President Donald Trump is enduring the same Covid-era hazards befalling the rest of the country. Visits from friends and outside advisers have been limited, making the always-isolating White House feel even more so.
With no meals to prepare, menus to taste, floral arrangements to procure, décor to design or invitations to calligraphy, the back-of-house life of the White House has essentially ground to a halt as well. The private residence, where the President and first lady live with their teenage son, is operating with a scaled-down staff.
Antsy at being sealed off, with no visiting dignitaries and no large crowds, Trump has wondered aloud to aides when life will again return to normal — not just for the nation, but for himself. The slowdown in his own life has led, in part, to Trump’s strong desire to see the guidelines he offered on avoiding crowds and staying at home lifted quickly.
“I gave it two weeks,” he said Tuesday during a virtual town hall aired on Fox News. “I guess, by Monday or Tuesday, it’s about two weeks. And we will assess at that time.”
Work from home — from the White House
Like everyone working from home, Trump has shown evidence of cabin fever: crashing meetings of his coronavirus task force, inserting himself into planned press conferences and tearing apart daily schedules so his appearances better align with television viewership patterns.
During daily policy sessions, aides said they sometimes don’t know whether Trump will walk through the door, leading to a general level of uncertainty on what to place on the agenda.
He has established one set routine: the daily coronavirus briefing, where he has sparred with reporters and declared himself a “wartime president” in a somewhat sputtering bid to accompany the nation through the crisis.
The functions of the White House outside of its governing capacity have completely shut down. Public tours ended on March 12; the Easter Egg Roll, slated for April 13, was canceled last week. On March 18, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the Trump administration’s third State Dinner, set for the King and Queen of Spain on April 21, was being postponed.
“Day-to-day operations staff have scaled back,” said a White House official with knowledge of the changes.
Just as many Americans are “checking in” more often with family and friends, Trump has been dialing friends and outside advisers more frequently now that he’s deprived of visitors or trips to his Mar-a-Lago, his now-shuttered Florida resort where he can consult people in person.
And just as cooped-up families or roommates are discovering strain in their relationships, the pandemic has highlighted and deepened internal divides in the administration as the coronavirus response becomes an all-encompassing focus for aides navigating a once-in-a-generation health crisis.
Lately, internal discussions have focused intently on how long the self-isolation measures Trump unveiled last week will last. In late night phone calls and television viewing sessions, Trump has heard from conservatives who question whether the benefits to public health are worth the damage to the economy.
The issue has emerged as a key point of contention between members of Trump’s coronavirus task force, where health professionals — such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist — have advocated for a longer period of containment to prevent further contagion.
Fauci was scheduled to be interviewed on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program on Monday night alongside Vice President Mike Pence, but abruptly pulled out at the last minute without explanation. Instead, the vice president did the interview by phone from his residence, a rare move from Pence who usually does his interviews in person. After publication, a White House official said Fauci was pulled from Hannity’s show because they didn’t want to double book one program.
The episode puzzled some White House aides, who were suspicious that it signaled Fauci had fallen out of favor with the President, if only temporarily.
“We get along very well,” Trump insisted during his town hall on Tuesday. “I think it’s been very good. You would have heard about it if it wasn’t.”
Fauci also downplayed the disconnect between his statements and the President’s in a radio interview Tuesday.
“I don’t consider the balancing act,” Fauci said. “I just give public health advice, completely clean unconnected with everything else.”
Still, the tensions that have emerged during the outbreak extend beyond the President and Fauci. Some of Trump’s senior aides have grown frustrated with the vice president’s team, believing they have taken too much control over the situation and largely cut them out. Some of Pence’s aides have started occupying unused space in the West Wing, which also has irked officials there.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who Pence selected as his top adviser during the coronavirus outbreak, moved into an office in the West Wing last week.
In the daily coronavirus briefings, Pence has taken the route of relying on the medical professionals such as Dr. Birx and her deputy, while Trump has maintained his focus on the economy and instead consulted with economic aides, including trade adviser Peter Navarro.
Trump’s focus on the economic fallout of the crisis is driven in part by his own belief that it will dictate his political future. Facing a potential recession, Trump has fretted that the coronavirus pandemic could cost him his job in November, though polls have shown his approval rating largely holding steady through the crisis.
As the crisis worsened, Trump held off canceling his political rallies, hopeful he would be able to remain on the campaign trail even amid the outbreak. But eventually it became clear his preferred outlet for speaking to supporters and touring the country would temporarily end — and that, like most Americans, Trump would be constrained to his home — the White House.
An example of a changing country
Whether he wants to or not, Trump is becoming an example of how the country is adapting — sometimes haltingly, not always willingly — to staying at home, dialing into the office and developing new routines amid the worst public health crisis in decades.
Of course, things are somewhat easier when your office is only an elevator ride and colonnade walk from your home, as it is for Trump. Work is made simpler still when your doctor’s office is two floors down, your groceries are taken care of and the toilet paper never runs low.
Still, Trump has found that, like for most Americans, life is not proceeding normally.
Instead of receiving foreign leaders in the Oval Office, Trump has patched through on videoconference lines to discuss the health crisis with members of the Group of 7, along with the heads of other nations.
He seemed tetchy during a video conference with governors held at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters last week, flatly calling out “next governor” as he waited in silence for each line to be connected. After South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem raised concerns about accessing test kits in her state, she seemed to be abruptly disconnected as she asked whether she could “just touch on two other things.”
“I think we got cut off,” Trump said before moving on.
Outside the West Wing, White House life has changed, too. Typically, there are more than 90 full-time White House residence staff members who care for the 132-room people’s house. The jobs range from chefs in the kitchen to groundskeepers, maintenance workers, ushers, plumbers, housekeepers, painters, florists and butlers.
But with the onset of coronavirus, and a diminished White House events calendar, many of the longtime residence employees are now not needed, and most are working, on-call, from home.
“As with so many Americans right now, the first lady is adhering to CDC guidelines about proper care and social distancing,” Grisham told CNN. “Additionally, the White House staff is maintaining proper social distance and adhering to CDC best practices. And non-essential staff are working from home.”
The residence spans several floors of the White House, but the first family mainly occupy the private second and third floors, which house multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, a gym, a solarium, a private dressing room and salon area, recreation rooms, and storage areas. The first family also has a private eat-in kitchen on the second floor, which is stocked at the request of the first lady or the chief usher of the White House.
Less is known about how the intensely private first lady is occupying her stretch in self-isolation, though she did record a video with some ideas for staying healthy and has been tweeting links to government advice on, among other things, managing the stress of staying home.