“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.’”