White House

Trump’s surprise cost-cutting target: The first lady’s staff

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for the 60th annual Red Cross Gala at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for the 60th annual Red Cross Gala at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. AP

As President Donald Trump searches for ways to cut costs at the White House, he has set his sights on the first lady’s office.

Trump is considering reducing the number of jobs in that office, which has grown to up to 20 employees in recent administrations, according to three people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly about the deliberations.

Anita McBride, who served in the last three Republican White Houses, including as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said any potential cutbacks might be consistent with the limited number of projects that first lady Melania Trump had indicated she wanted to pursue.

“There is no right way or wrong way to do it,” said McBride, who is executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “There’s no statutory authority for the first lady. You write the job description as you come in.”

Melania Trump has been slow to staff her East Wing office as she continues to live in New York with their 10-year-old son, Barron, while he finishes the school year. She was in Washington on Friday for the first time since the inauguration Jan. 20 for the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As of this week, she had hired only a chief of staff and a social secretary, who oversees hundreds of events, big and small, from bill signings to lavish state dinners.

By contrast, at least four recent first ladies — Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan — had filled these positions and more well before Inauguration Day.

“I am putting together a professional and highly experienced team which will take time to do properly,” Melania Trump said in a statement announcing her chief of staff.

On his first day in office, Trump implemented a hiring freeze for the entire federal government except the military to make good on a campaign pledge to save taxpayers money.

He is now considering reducing the number of jobs in the White House, which in past administrations has comprised 400 to 450 career and political appointees, according to the three people.

Even as he considers cuts, Trump has still not filled many of the jobs he intends to in the White House, leaving a small crew overwhelmed as the president rushes to implement a slew of policy proposals, hold meetings and make nominations.

Some who have worked in the White House for presidents of both parties say the Trumps are likely to eventually realize that the jobs, including those in the first lady’s office, are needed to handle the enormous crush of activities and requests. Cutbacks are likely only to make it harder for already overstretched workers.

The White House declined to comment. But Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters this week that Trump will review all aspects of government for potential savings.

“There’s going to be a respect for taxpayers in this administration, so that whether it’s salaries or actual positions or programs, he’s going to have a very, very tough look at how we’re operating government, how many positions they’re in, what people are getting paid,” he said.

Vice President Mike Pence announced last month that the Trump transition team wouldn’t spend 20 percent of the taxpayer money allocated to cover its expenses. “We’re wrapping up this transition on schedule and under budget,” he said.

Ken Nahigian, who heads the Trump transition team until it wraps up its work Feb. 20, did not return a message seeking comment about specific dollar figures. But Congress set aside $9.5 million for transition costs. Trump’s team also raised donations, likely equal to at least the $4 million Obama raised in 2008.

Michelle Obama’s staff attempted to meet with Melania Trump’s staff during the transition, but there was no one to meet with, according to several people.

Ebs Burnough, who served as deputy social secretary in the Obama White House, said it was surprising that the Trumps did not have a social secretary on day one to help with inaugural festivities, foreign leader visits and activities that involved the president, first lady and residence. “That’s a key office,” he said. “It’s the lifeblood of that house.”

The first lady office’s generally includes policy personnel – though often they are on loan from other agencies – as well as schedulers, communications staff and those who answer correspondence. The social secretary usually has a staff of four or so people. They also work closely with the visitors office, responsible for public tours and other events.

Melania Trump named Lindsay Reynolds, who previously served in the White House under President George W. Bush, as her chief of staff last week. Anna Cristina Niceta Lloyd, who helped plan the last five inaugurations, was named social secretary this week. Niceta Lloyd is married to Thomas Lloyd, the grandson of Bunny Mellon, who helped design the Rose Garden with former first lady Jackie Kennedy.

Melania Trump did not frequent the campaign trail, neither with her husband nor on her own. She was initially well-received at the Republican National Convention last summer until reports surfaced that her speech had lifted language from one delivered by Michelle Obama. In one of her few campaign speeches, Melania Trump announced that she planned to focus on combating cyberbullying as first lady, though there has been no sign of that effort so far.

Trump has said his wife and son will move from Trump Tower to the White House after Barron finishes his fourth-grade year at an Upper West Side private school.