WASHINGTON — By the time guests arrive Tuesday evening for the State Department’s “holiday cheer” event, it will be their second celebration of the night. The group, mostly foreign ambassadors, have been invited first to the White House for a special tour and open house before party-hopping across the street to Blair House for more cocktails, festive bites and mid-pandemic schmoozing.
The ambassadors event, detailed in an invitation obtained by NBC News, is one of more than a dozen holiday events Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his aides are hosting for hundreds of people this month, even as the State Department instructs lower-level employees that all “non-mission critical events” should be virtual.
As America hunkers down for a socially distanced holiday, canceling Christmas parties and family trips, party season in Foggy Bottom is just ramping up. State Department officials tell NBC News that events are planned for almost every day of the next two weeks at headquarters and at Blair House, the presidential guest house controlled by the State Department.
The packed social calendar has triggered deep concern among some State Department officials, not only about the safety of employees, waiters and security who must execute the event, but also of the guests.
“Just like the Rose Garden, the virus won’t touch the powerful,” one State Department official said sarcastically, referencing the White House event that became a super-spreader. “It’s just absurd.”
Despite the expectation that foreign dignitaries will be safe at official U.S. government events, State Department officials have been told it’s each ambassador’s personal responsibility to decide whether it’s wise to attend. One official said RSVPs suggest that the attendance for the ambassadors event, as coronavirus rages and President Trump’s term nears the end, will be lower this year than normal.
Pompeo himself will host holiday parties on December 15 and 16, an official confirmed. The Washington Post first reported on Pompeo’s plans to invite hundreds to holiday parties.
The indoor festivities appear to fly in the face of instructions that State Department leadership sent just last week to employees and obtained by NBC News that reminded them of the agency’s “commitment to responsible physical distancing and mission-critical only gatherings.”
Employees were advised to skip traditional office parties this year, opting instead for “photo contests of door decorations, virtual holiday mask or sweater competitions and virtual hangouts.” And while Pompeo’s holiday parties will feature festive boozy drinks and traditional holiday fare, the notice warned that management “will not be approving alcohol waivers” for employees’ holiday gatherings.
Just last week, Pompeo suggested such social gatherings are not mission-critical. In a Fox News interview, Pompeo responded to comments from President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for U.N. ambassador who had said that multilateralism and diplomacy will be “back” in the Biden administration.
“Multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with your buddies at a cool cocktail party, that’s not in the best interest of the United States of America,” Pompeo said.
As Covid-19 deaths, cases and hospitalizations all set new records this week, the CDC is urging Americans to celebrate the holidays at home, gathering only with household members. The District of Columbia’s cap on indoor events stands at 10 people or fewer.
Still, the State Department defended the decision to hold holiday parties nonetheless, with a spokesperson saying some events are being split up to ensure fewer people share indoor spaces at one time. Guests will undergo temperature checks — but not Covid-19 tests — and will have access to “numerous hand-sanitizing towers.”
“All attendees will be required to wear masks, and social distancing guidelines will be implemented to ensure space between attendees,” the spokesperson said. The State Department did not answer questions about how guests could consume the government-provided food and cocktails while wearing masks.
Pompeo’s holiday gatherings extend a pattern of the Trump administration opting to hold in-person holiday gatherings that run directly counter to what their own public health officials are imploring the public to do this month to slow the spread of the virus.
“When you talk about the risk and the danger of indoor congregate settings without a mask, it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, what your position is, that’s a very risky situation,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, told MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Thursday.
The White House will host as many as 20 receptions in the next few weeks before Christmas. That includes a large tented event being held Friday at the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence, a Trump administration official said Wednesday.
While the White House is promising “the safest environment possible,” including “plexiglass-protected food stations,” videos posted to social media from a White House holiday reception this week showed many guests ignoring the mask requirement and packing closely together as they admired the Christmas decorations and snapped cellphone photos of the first lady.
“Attending the parties will be a very personal choice,” said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff. “It is a longstanding tradition for people to visit and enjoy the cheer and iconic decor of the annual White House Christmas celebrations.”
As of Thursday, at least 52 people in and around Trump’s orbit have contracted coronavirus in recent months, according to an NBC News tally.