One White House aide mused that the shutdown was like a paid vacation for some furloughed workers. President Donald Trump's daughter-in-law said employees' "little bit of pain" was worth it for the good of the country. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross questioned why cash-poor workers were using food banks instead of taking out loans.
The president himself says workers simply need to "make adjustments."
With hundreds of thousands of federal workers going without pay during the monthlong partial government shutdown, Trump and his team, which includes the wealthiest Cabinet ever assembled, have struggled to deliver a full dose of empathy for those who are scraping to get by.
Ross set off howls when he was asked on CNBC on Thursday about reports that some of the 800,000 workers currently not receiving paychecks were going to homeless shelters to get food.
"Well, I know they are, and I don't really quite understand why," he said. "The obligations that they would undertake, say borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are, in effect, federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out ... there's no real reason why they shouldn't be able to get a loan against it."
In a subsequent interview with Bloomberg, Ross said he was "painfully aware" that workers were suffering hardships. He added that in his earlier remarks, he'd been trying to let workers know that credit union loans were available for those "experiencing liquidity crises" — hardly the language of those living paycheck to paycheck.
It all contributed to perceptions that the Trump administration was out of touch with workers bearing the brunt of the shutdown impact.
"Is this the 'Let them eat cake' kind of attitude?" said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Or call your father for money?" With that, the speaker evoked Marie Antoinette and took an indirect jab at Trump for inheriting family money to launch his business career.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Ross' comments "reveal the administration's callous indifference toward the federal workers it is treating as pawns." He added: "Secretary Ross, they just can't call their stock broker and ask them to sell some of their shares."
Deeming air traffic controllers who are calling in sick "disappointing," Ross said that workers will eventually get their pay and that there is no reason why a loan would not be a reasonable option for workers who have been staring at zeros on their pay statements.
"Now, true, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it's paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea," said Ross, whose financial disclosure forms reveal $700 million in assets.
The president said he hadn't seen Ross's comments but added: "I do understand perhaps he should have said it differently."
Trump said the commerce secretary's point was that grocery stores, banks and other local entities were "working along" with federal employees to ease the shutdown's impact. He added that Ross has "done a great job."
Other Trump officials have been more effective in conveying their sympathies for those affected by the shutdown.
"Nobody, including myself, likes the hardship caused, the temporary hardship caused by the government shutdown," Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said Thursday. "I have young people on my staff, devoted young people. You know, when you're 28 years old, you don't save a lot. I get that, and I think a lot of people have to get through this."
Trump, for his part, has repeatedly maintained, without providing evidence, that federal workers support the need for a border wall even if it means going without a paycheck. The president did not mention the furloughed workers during his Oval Office address to the nation earlier this month and has said that government employees "will make adjustments" to get by.
Asked Thursday what his message to furloughed workers was, Trump said: "I love them. I respect them. I really appreciate the great job they're doing." He continued to insist that "many of those people that are not getting paid are totally in favor of what we're doing because they know the future of this country is dependent on having a strong border."
Kevin Hassett, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said early in the shutdown that some furloughed employees were, "in some sense, they're better off" because people who were already taking vacation over the holidays ultimately would not be charged for their already-planned trip. Hassett has since said that his remarks were taken out of context.
Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and campaign aide, said this week that for the furloughed workers, "It is a little bit of pain, but it's going to be for the future of our country."
On Thursday, she tried to explain the comment, insisting to Fox News that "I am incredibly empathetic towards anyone right now without a paycheck" and blaming the mainstream media for misrepresenting her message.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.