Trump’s White House not yet open for tours

Posted at 8:21 AM, Feb 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-02 08:21:53-05

Nearly two weeks after his inauguration, President Donald Trump’s White House isn’t yet open to the public for tours.

The administration hasn’t appointed anyone to run the White House Visitors Office, which organizes tours and major events such as the Easter Egg Roll and the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The office is housed in the East Wing.

Previous administrations of both parties have had someone in charge of the visitors center by this point and quickly opened the White House doors to the public — even doing so the day after the inauguration for open houses. But this is a White House unlike any other, with a first lady living — at least temporarily — more than 200 miles away and a president who spends the bulk of his time in the Oval Office rather than the residence.

The visitor’s office vacancy is one of several key positions that first lady Melania Trump is working to fill, including a social secretary and a press secretary. She named Lindsay Reynolds as her chief of staff Wednesday evening. In a statement, Reynolds said she is “working to ensure that the White House Visitors Office is fully staffed and operational and ready to accept tour requests for the public in the coming weeks.”

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a senior adviser to the first lady, released a statement Wednesday evening saying Melania Trump will be “moving to D.C. and settling in to the White House at the end of the school year.”

The head of the visitors office is an especially important position. While it is housed in the East Wing, it is an appointment made by the President. In recent administrations, the person charged with running the office has been someone who both the president and first lady know personally.

One of the main jobs of the visitors office is keeping members of Congress happy as they get requests from their constituents to visit the White House. Melinda Bates, who was director of the White House Visitors Office during former President Bill Clinton’s two terms in office, said a wife of a congressman once paid her a personal visit to deliver an important message: “Access to these tours is more important to my husband’s re-election than any speech he will ever give.”

A call into the visitors center only yields an apology.

“We hope the tours start again soon,” said the person who answered the phone recently.

The tours have been suspended before, including during the days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Blowback from Congress

Bates said she hopes that tours resume soon and predicted blowback from members of Congress if that doesn’t happen.

“It’s their open door to the public, who own the house, which is really important,” she said.

Visitors to Washington often plan their vacations around White House tours.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said a former Obama staffer with ties to the visitors office. “It’s a very easy thing to do. And it’s one of the greatest perks members of Congress can give their constituents.”

Lauren Doney, the communications director for Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said they have not received any information from the White House about the tours.

“We have not received any information as to when White House tours might resume, or when we can begin requesting them on behalf of our constituents,” Doney said in a statement. “Our office continues to offer Capitol tours to interested constituents.”

The new head of the visitor’s office typically meets with their predecessor during the transition to discuss how operations were handled. The Clintons, Bushes and Obamas each held open houses the day after the inauguration.

The Obamas named Ellie Schafer to the post in January 2009. She oversaw more than 1,500 events and welcomed more than 3 million visitors to the White House. The Obamas pledged to open up the White House to people of different backgrounds and the first lady sometimes invited schoolchildren to harvest the White House garden.

In a video released shortly before leaving office, former President Barack Obama said, “Michelle and I always joke, ‘We’re just renters here.’ The owners are the American people and all those invested in creating this amazing place with so much history.”

For the Obamas, tours were shut down for several days following the January 21, 2009, open house. But Schafer called lawmakers to make sure they knew they would quickly resume.

Like the Obamas, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greeted some 3,000 visitors for an afternoon tour shortly after taking office.

‘This is not our house’

“I just want to remind everybody that this is not our house,” President Bush said at the time. “It is the people’s house and one of the grand traditions in the White House is to share the people’s house with people from all over the country.”

The day after the Clintons moved into the White House in 1993, they opened the doors to more than 1,000 winners of a lottery drawing. Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton stood with vice president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, and shook hands as they stood beneath the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

It was an interesting group, including a man dressed as Uncle Sam and another who told the first couple, according to reporting at the time, “I’m a hillbilly, too.”

Another guest asked the president how he was enjoying life in his new home. Clinton said he was liking it so far but admitted that he was “having trouble finding things.’ ”

“This is just in such stark contrast to that,” said a former White House residence staffer who worked there during Clinton’s tenure.

But the Trump administration seems to recognize the importance of getting these tours back up and running.

Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and author of “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House” and “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies”