All the president’s men must go through him
If Johnny DeStefano applied for a job in the Trump administration, chances are pretty good that Johnny DeStefano wouldn’t hire him.
DeStefano is the president’s official headhunter, responsible for filling up to 4,000 political jobs — about 500 of which are really important jobs — in a government that his boss promised to clear of the permanent class of capital insiders to drain the Washington, D.C., swamp.
So the ideal applicant wouldn’t have spent much of his career on Capitol Hill like DeStefano has, starting with a college internship. Or served as political director for former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who embodies the GOP establishment. Or raised money for House Republicans, then built a data operation used by the Republican National Committee.
And yet this didn’t stop DeStefano, 38, from getting an under-the-radar role as someone to see in Trump world.
In an interview at hisD.C. office, the director of presidential personnel sits easily in a navy blue suit at the conference table where he asks people why they want to work for President Donald Trump.
“What I’m interested in now is, ‘Why do you want the job, and more specifically why do you want to work for this administration?’ ” DeStefano says he asks candidates he interviews for jobs ranging from undersecretary of transportation to ambassador to the EuropeanUnion.
“What’s your vision? I want to know that myself,” he says. “I’m the person who’s vouching for them to the president of the United States.”
He’s also struggling to fill critical jobs across a government still missingmost of its senior leaders, a personnel roadblock caused by a slow start, screening delays, candidates turned off by a post-government lobbying ban — and the possibility that Trump doesn’t want to fill all of those posts.
When the White House announced DeStefano’s appointment, the far-right blogosphere lit up in anger.
“Those who hoisted the pirate flag and joined the Trumpteamwhenhewas at 2 percent in the polls ... must wonder what the devil is going on,” longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie wrote, calling the choice a “major impediment” toTrump’s goals.
And yet DeStefano has won over the “pirate” wing led by Steve Bannon, Trump’s combative chief strategist.
“Johnny was a controversial pick for the Breitbart crowd,” Bannon says, referring to the right-wing news site he ran before joining Trump’s campaign. “Hewas looked at as not close to what the Trump movement was looking for.”
But he now calls DeStefano “just a huge piece of manpower” with a “very good sense of who could be a change agent and what are thekeypositions youhave to fill and get filled right away.”
DeStefano’s newpost and ornate office are a long way from the Data Trust, the Republican voter-data firm where he could wear flip flops and jeans to work while overseeing the team of 24 technology geeks he built to modernize the GOP’s voter files.
His surroundings notwithstanding, he retains a sense of minimalism, with almost-empty bookcases and a bare desk except for some stray papers and an empty tube of Airborne, the immune-system booster. It looks likehehasn’tmovedin.
Friends say the sparse office shouldn’t be confused with disengagement: DeStefano is a strategic thinker with a radar for assessing people’s talents.
In a White House besieged by infighting, he tries to manage the chaos.
“Johnny takes a lot of heat,” says chief of staff Reince Priebus, describing pressure that comes from above, below and from the calendar. “He’s calm, he’s patient and he has a good understanding of who’s in charge, meaning the president.”
DeStefano finds himself firingbackatnaysayerswho think that Trump is moving too slowly to staff the government. Bill Clinton had 100 people looking through resumes and Trump has 36. So what? Back then, they came in on paper. Now they’re emailed.
“I think that doing it right is more important than doing it fast,” he says. Johnny DeStefano, president’s official headhunter
DeStefano didn’t to the job he landed.
Priebus, who got to know DeStefano when he was Republican National Committee chairman, called DeStefano two days before Christmas to ask him to come to New York the next day to meet the presidentelect’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, at Trump Tower.
“Literally, this came out of the blue,” Boehner says. “You don’t have to wonder what you’re getting with Johnny. He brings stability.”
DeStefano had no experience in executive searches before this. Most presidents have their personnel chiefs in place months before the election.
He wasn’t on board until late January, after Trump’s transition team had dumped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his lists of potential job candidates. The hiring operation was on life support.
DeStefano and his team ensure that candidates pass the ultimate test in this administration: loyalty. #NeverTrumpers or those who said something unflattering about the candidate on Twitter or Facebook are almost always disqualified.
He’s also the gatekeeper, culling from thousands of resumes — the White House won’t say how many — in the personnel office’s database for lower-level posts that don’t require Senate confirmation. Fewof the top jobs are filled from that list but emerge from a more chaotic process by which an adviser, family member, senator or the vice president will hand DeStefano a name and tell him to take a look. He has to tell Cabinet secretarieswhentheir picks aren’t going to fly with the WhiteHouse.
So where do you begin to hire 4,000 peoplewhowant to upend the federal government aswe knowit?
For starters, this isn’t spoils system.
“There wasn’t a huge campaign,” DeStefano says. “This isn’t a Republican administration that came with thousands and thousands of folks who are expecting jobs.”
They’re looking instead for peoplewhohave “driven change” in or out of government.
He acknowledges that finding outsiders involves “a little bit more of a mix of recruitment and placement than I think most administrations have had,” but he calls it an “opportunity.” aspire
Johnny DeStefano, Donald Trump’s director of presidential personnel, has spent much of his career on Capitol Hill.