West Wing to Empty Out for August Construction

By Alexis Simendinger
July 25, 2017

President Trump’s working vacation away from Washington in August will allow some major maintenance and construction to take place in the West Wing, which will require the president’s staff to work elsewhere temporarily, sources familiar with the project told RealClearPolitics.

The Brady Press Briefing Room and workspace used by the White House press corps will not be affected, a spokeswoman for the General Service Administration said Monday.

The White House has not officially announced the president’s vacation plans.

Summers are customarily a period during which GSA and its contractors take advantage of presidents’ two- or three-week vacations to race through long punch lists of construction, maintenance, and renovations at the White House.

It is rare to need to uproot aides and advisers who work in the West Wing, a structure that has the benefit of being a historic showplace, coupled with the downsides of aging plumbing, wiring, heating and air.

One Maryland contractor working on the West Wing has described the scope of its work as “HVAC infrastructure … to keep the West Wing operational in the case of major utility failure(s).” A spokesperson for Apex Construction, which is operating under a $521,000, one-year GSA contract that ends in November, would not comment to RCP.

Next month, GSA will tackle a to-do list of projects featuring heating and air conditioning upgrades, which will mean the West Wing would not be sufficiently cool to accommodate the president’s staff until work is completed.

Current plans call for aides to temporarily work off-site for a brief period, decamped in at least two directions: the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door, as well as with the president, who is expected to visit his New Jersey home at some point between Aug. 3-20, possibly depending on events in Washington.

Last week, Trump urged Senate Republicans to stay in the nation’s capital and deliberate until the GOP majority repealed the Affordable Care Act. The Senate, currently debating health care, budget issues and confirmations, has delayed by two weeks its scheduled July 31-Sept. 4 recess. House members plan to leave Washington at the end of this week.

When asked if the president would remain in Washington with senators if they delay their recess to get a health care bill to his desk, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short last week told reporters, “He will be here working on it as long as they are, and he wants to get it done.”

Trump will learn this week if he’s needed in Washington next week. The Senate will vote Tuesday to determine if GOP senators want to take up an Obamacare repeal measure that remains in limbo.

The president’s vacation window and the GSA work schedule were plotted in advance of the health care drama. The Federal Aviation Administration last week issued a bulletin that confirmed the president’s ambitions to be in New Jersey during August. The agency alerted air traffic July 19 that temporary flight restrictions tied to the president’s security (“VIP”) will be in effect over Bedminster Township in the Garden State from Aug. 3-20.

A GSA spokeswoman, who spoke on background Monday, originally confirmed that HVAC work and other projects in the West Wing would take place Aug. 3-20. She later amended the time frame to “August.”

“The Executive Office of the President and the General Services Administration are discussing HVAC and other projects that could take place during the president’s travel schedule,” she said in an email in response to RCP questions. “The work would take place in August. The press corps, located in the press briefing room, would not be affected during this time frame.”

For more than a decade, the White House has undergone major construction and renovations that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars – projects begun during President George W. Bush’s administration. The work, which involved deep excavations and construction beneath the West Wing Lobby entrance and the adjacent West Executive Drive, continued noisily (and under a shroud of “top secret”) after President Obama moved in.

At the time, GSA described the work to Congress as East and West Wing “infrastructure replacement,” including “demolition and abatement … mechanical systems to include HVAC and Chemical Biological Radiological (CBR), electrical systems and fire alarm, physical security and information technology systems.”

Completion of that work originally called for relocating the president, his office and his key staff to the Eisenhower building for a period of months. But Obama and his team subsequently objected to vacating the Oval Office and the West Wing quarters because of the related inconveniences and disruptions. GSA amended its plans and continued to oversee West Wing upgrades with the 44th president and his staff in place.

It is unclear whether the HVAC project slated for this summer ties back to the West Wing work begun during the Bush administration and envisioned to occur in phases. Supervising the projects at the outset was Bush Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joe Hagin, who now has the same title and similar responsibilities under President Trump.

Hagin did not respond to a request for information. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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