Top Stories
Top Stories
White House

The latest test for the White House? Pulling off its Easter Egg Roll

Julie Hirschfeld Davis
Children roll eggs at the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 28, 2016.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

President Trump received an urgent warning in February, informing him of a crucial date he was about to miss.

"FYI manufacturing deadlines for the Easter eggs are near," said a Twitter post directed at Mr. Trump; the first lady, Melania Trump; and the president's daughter Ivanka Trump. "Please reach out!"

The message came from Wells Wood Turning, the company that supplies commemorative wooden eggs for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, the 138-year-old celebration that has drawn 35,000 people to the South Lawn in recent years.

More from New York Times:
G.M. Takes a Back Seat to Tesla as America's Most Valued Carmaker
That Fingerprint Sensor on Your Phone Is Not as Safe as You Think
At Wells Fargo, Crushing Pressure and Lax Oversight Produced a Scandal

The staff of the company, based in Buckfield, Me., wondered whether the Trumps planned to continue distributing the wooden eggs as party favors, or whether they were even going to have a White House Easter Egg Roll at all.

By early March, the White House announced that the roll was on — next Monday, to be exact — and soon followed up with a rush order for the wooden eggs.

Amanda Rose works on coating wooden eggs in pastel blue paint during her shift at Wells Wood Turning & Finishing.
Brianna Soukup | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

By that time, the ovoid uncertainty had raised a question perhaps not as consequential as investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election, a legally dubious travel ban and a collapsed health care bill, but no less a window into the inner workings of the Trump administration: Could this White House, plagued by slow hiring and lacking an on-site first lady, manage to pull off the largest, most elaborate and most heavily scrutinized public event of the year?

"It's the single most high-profile event that takes place at the White House each year, and the White House and the first lady are judged on how well they put it on," said Melinda Bates, who organized eight years of Easter Egg Rolls as director of the White House Visitors Office under President Bill Clinton. "I'm really concerned for the Trump people, because they have failed to fill some really vital posts, and this thing is all hands on deck."

White House party catastrophes have been the stuff of presidential nightmares in the past. During his first year in office, President Barack Obama drew harsh criticism for lax security procedures after a pair of aspiring reality-show celebrities successfully crashed a state dinner honoring the prime minister of India, with one of them managing to buttonhole Mr. Obama for a handshake.

The late start in planning by the Trump White House points to a smaller and less ambitious Egg Roll than in previous years. There may be half as many guests, a fraction of the number of volunteers to manage the invasion of the South Lawn, and military bands in place of A-list entertainers like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Idina Menzel and Silentó who have performed for Egg Rolls past.

White House officials did not respond to several weeks' worth of inquiries about the Easter Egg Roll, typically a heavily and enthusiastically promoted affair, and declined to provide basic information such as how many people are expected to attend. It is unclear, for instance, whether Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, will reprise his appearance in a bunny suit for the event, as he did a decade ago when George W. Bush was president and Mr. Spicer was an aide in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

"Plans for the Easter Egg Roll are well underway, and the White House looks forward to hosting it," said Stephanie Grisham, Mrs. Trump's communications director, installed only a few weeks ago. She said it was "just not accurate" to suggest that the event had been scaled back from past years, but would not provide figures for the size of the event or information about the program.

The evidence points to a quickly thrown-together affair that people close to the planning said would probably draw about 20,000 people — substantially smaller than last year's Easter Egg Roll, which drew 37,000 — and be staffed by 200 volunteers, one-fifth of the usual number. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the plans for the Easter Egg Roll, which are still evolving just a week before the event.

The White House has ordered 40,000 of the commemorative eggs — about half of the roughly 85,000 ordered in 2016 — with 18,000 to be given away at the Easter Egg Roll and another 22,000 available for sale, according to Lara Kline, the vice president for marketing and communications at the White House Historical Association, the official retailer.

The relatively small number, Ms. Kline said, "is due to the limited manufacturing window for this year's Easter Egg Roll."

The employees at Wells Wood Turning were not alone in wondering whether the White House would ever get in touch.

Washington-area public schools that normally receive blocks of tickets for as many as 4,000 children have yet to hear from the White House, according to representatives for school systems in the District of Columbia; Arlington, Va.; and Alexandria, Va. Several groups representing military families, who have accounted for as many as 3,000 guests in recent years, also said they had yet to be contacted.

"I've had quite a few families from across the country reach out and say: 'Hey, are we getting tickets? Our family wants to drive in for the event,'" said Ashley Broadway-Mack, the president of the American Military Partner Association, which represents the families of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender service members and has received tickets for five to 10 of them for each of the last several years. "Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not reached out about it."

Even Curious George and Elmo did not know for sure that the Easter Egg Roll was happening until late last month, when the White House first contacted PBS Kids to ask if it could provide costumed characters.

"We just got word about this year's Egg Roll and are working on planning," Jennifer Rankin Byrne, the senior director of media relations for PBS, said on March 20.

The Easter Egg Roll has been crowded in past years with cast members from "Sesame Street," but this year, there will be a lone emissary.

"PBS asked us to participate with them, and we agreed to provide a 'Sesame Street' character," said Elizabeth Weinreb Fishman, the vice president for strategic communications for Sesame Workshop. She declined to say which character would attend, referring questions to the White House.

Members of Congress have not received word from the White House about whether they will get tickets to distribute to their constituents. One aide to a Republican lawmaker said White House officials "seem to be a bit behind schedule."

Nor have the organizers of the Yoga Garden featured on the South Lawn during Obama-era Easter Egg Rolls been asked to share their asanas.

"No one has reached out to me about the 2017 event," said Leah Cullis, the yogi who coordinated the Yoga Garden for all eight of the Obamas' Easter Egg Rolls.

Mrs. Trump, who lives in New York and has had a limited presence in Washington since her husband was sworn in, has been slow to hire a staff for the East Wing, which typically takes the lead on the Easter Egg Roll. She named a chief of staff and social secretary in early February but has yet to announce a director for the Visitors Office, normally the crucial player in the daunting execution of the event.

"You don't understand what a beast this thing is to plan until you go and plan your first one," said Ellie Schafer, who organized Easter Egg Rolls for the Obamas as the director of the White House Visitors Office from 2009 to 2016. "Every administration tries to put its own stamp on it, but the stakes are high because it's such a Washington tradition, and people just love it and have very strong feelings about it."

Ms. Bates, whose memoir "White House Story" documents the challenges of planning Clinton-era Easter Egg Rolls, said the event was a window — up to a point — into the competence of an administration.

"If you can pull off an Easter Egg Roll," she said, "you can do anything."

Watch: Make your own Easter egg with CNBC

Make your own Easter egg with CNBC