WASHINGTON — It would have been a swell party. There was an oyster tower made from solid ice and charcuterie tables piled high in every room. The Charles Orban Champagne was flowing. And the site of this annual soiree, hosted by the French ambassador at the official residence, is one pretty pile of bricks.
What there wasn’t: anyone recognizable from the White House. Not even Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, who used to attend.
Who cares? The packs of journalists and foreign service officials who prowled the rooms of an imperial manse in search of someone who mattered, that’s who. As any of them will tell you, this holiday season, spotting someone by the punch bowl with the ability to whisper into the president’s ear has been harder than ever.
Going out in Washington is work. Parties are places for D.C. officials and members of the press corps to meet, mix and move the pieces on the chess board. (Booze helps.) Money or beauty is irrelevant. Power, and the proximity to it, is the only metric. It has always been so.
President Trump has, as promised and to his supporters’ glee, disrupted Washington’s way of life. And sure, as during Watergate, the news business is booming and random bureaucrats have been thrust onto the national stage. But it’s been hell on the social life.
Two nights after the French ambassador’s holiday party, which was held Dec. 10, the situation wasn’t quite as dire at the British embassy. Mick Mulvaney, perhaps celebrating the one-year anniversary of being named Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, dropped in for a moment while partygoers watched the votes pile up for Boris Johnson, Mr. Trump’s blond buddy across the pond.
Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the National Republican Committee, also attended. Still, this shindig wasn’t what it once was.
Big-name White House officials used to come out en masse. When the last British ambassador described the Trump White House in cables to 10 Downing Street as “a uniquely dysfunctional environment,” his “unvarnished assessments” came from two years of cultivating and kibitzing with many of those aides who are now too skittish to attend.
The ambassador was run out of town after his cables leaked in July; Britain has yet to send a replacement.
There were only ever a handful of cabinet secretaries and Trump aides who would brave the night life of a city that reviles, and is reviled by, President Trump. (You know it’s bad when Wilbur Ross, the 82-year-old secretary of commerce who both falls asleep and wears $600 velvet slippers in public, is considered the social butterfly of this administration.) And the slow march to impeachment has made aides even less willing to mingle.
In the beginning, though, people such as Ms. Conway, Steven Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump could be counted on to show up at parties and interpret the latest presidential paroxysm in an effort to soothe the freaked-out establishment. Three years in, relations have soured.
“It’s like a siege mentality,” said Kevin Chaffee, a senior editor at Washington Life, a society magazine that is read by President Trump. “They don’t want to go out and court confrontation. Trump has cast a pall.”
Part of that “pall” may also come from the hyperpolarization that has gripped D.C., along with much of the nation. People with warring political affiliations may simply be less interested in socializing together, at least at semipublic events.
“People don’t even realize what it was like when President Reagan was here,” Mr. Chaffee said. “Every night he went out to people’s homes, the embassies, there were dinners. Even under Bush 1, the whole cabinet went out.”
Sally Quinn, the Georgetown hostess, said: “This has been a long time coming, in the sense that things started to slow down a while ago. But when Trump got in, there was immediate division starting from Day 1, when Sean Spicer got up and said it was the biggest crowd, period.”
Division indeed. When Ms. Quinn gave a party earlier in December for the CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell — by most counts, one of the better parties of the season — Ms. Quinn spared but one invitation for the Conway household.
It did not go to Kellyanne, but to her husband, George, a man whose popularity with the media is predicated on the last tweet he has hurled at his wife or her boss.
Still, he made something of a sorry plaything. His arm was in a wrap, and it was hard not to wince as he endured the same joke about his injured limb and bruised marriage from several different people, which went something like: “Did Kellyanne do this to you because you wouldn’t put the phone down?” (At least Bob Woodward was interested enough in this spectacle to scribble down Mr. Conway’s email address.)
The turnover in this White House is so high that the diplomatic corps can’t even figure out who to suck up to. “After November 2016 all the ambassadors were desperately scrambling, trying to find the Trump people, and the worst part was that after three or four months, they were changing overnight,” said Gérard Araud, the previous French ambassador.
The ones who have found themselves suddenly in the sun, thanks in part to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, are the emissaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But an autocratic embassy does not a swinging party make.
“I can count on one hand the embassies that are really that active,” Mr. Chaffee said. “It used to be more like two and a half hands.”
Then there are the other bashes. At the festivities around this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, held the first weekend in December, the secretary of state got dressed down by Linda Ronstadt while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got a standing ovation — you can see why the president skipped.
This White House has enriched the press, but it also stopped throwing a Christmastime party for reporters. The White House correspondents’ dinner, which reporters from The New York Times do not attend, once boasted truly glamorous after-parties. Those have dried up in the Trump era.
It’s not as if President Trump is completely lacking in Christmas spirit, though. He gave most federal workers an extra day off this year, and circulated holiday cards around the Senate, delivered alongside copies of his six-page letter to Ms. Pelosi about “this impeachment charade.”
Anyone who has been to a family Thanksgiving knows that impeachment doesn’t make for fun party talk. Jonathan Turley, the legal expert called by the Republicans to appear this month before the House Judiciary Committee, summed up the mood in Washington: “The president is mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My Republican friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad. And Luna is a goldendoodle and they don’t get mad.”
Mr. Chaffee said: “I’m old enough to have been around during the last impeachment, and it was just the same as it is now — meanspirited and evil, on both sides.” But President Clinton never 86-ed the White House Christmas party during his impeachment.
Many presidents have understood the power of a good party, especially during a tense political time. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s critics accused him of ruling like a dictator during the Depression, he threw a toga party at the White House and dressed as Caesar.
Andrew Jackson’s inaugural party in 1829 — open to anyone — reportedly got so rowdy that he had to flee it. (He had been elected in a ruthless campaign year and, as the populist candidate, had good reason to want to spite Washington’s elite with some rabble-rousing.)
And though President Barack Obama was thought of as more aloof than his predecessors, he drew many a Hollywood star to the Potomac. Now celebrities make headlines not for partying at the White House, but for protesting it.
When Michelle Obama was first lady, one evening at a restaurant along 14th street could ensure that it would become date-night destination dining. In contrast, Melania Trump is such a Sphinx-like creature that, for a while, many wondered if she even lived in the White House.
Though it wouldn’t play into his “drain the swamp” narrative, Mr. Trump could have been the party animal of Pennsylvania Avenue had he wanted. Sure, he’s a teetotaler, but so was Jay Gatsby. And it’s not like Mr. Trump goes to bed at 9, as George W. Bush did, or unwinds by reading briefing papers and eating almonds, as Mr. Obama did.
In fact, this president is a night owl who spent much of his adult life partying his way on to Page Six, surrounded by movie stars, pornographic actresses and models. He knows that social capital can be wielded as a source of soft power.
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote in his memoir that during his time at the White House, Mr. Trump once called him with a proposal to build a ballroom.
Mr. Trump had taken note of what he called “these state dinners on the lawn there” in “little tents” that were not up to Mr. Trump’s standards. “Let me build you a ballroom you can assemble and take apart,” he said to Mr. Axelrod. “Trust me. It’ll look great.”
In 2016, Mr. Trump’s tabloid chronicler in chief, Cindy Adams, wrote in her column: “Watch for a quickly built Trump White House ballroom.”
“Quickly” turned out to be a hasty estimation. But, then, infrastructure has been delayed all over.