This Beltway insider is in charge of hiring for the Trump administration


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, an amiable 38-year-old who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, from getting an under-the-radar role as someone to see in Trump world. 

‘Why do you want to work for this administration?’

 In an interview at his corner office next to the White House, the director of presidential personnel brushes off suggestions that his mainstream political pedigree is a liability. Before Trump, everyone started somewhere, he says, sitting easily in a navy blue suit at the conference table where he asks people why they want to work for President Donald Trump. The spacious digs are appointed with white marble floors,a black limestone fireplace and coffered ceiling 18 feet above him. 

 "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 European Union. 

 "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 missing most 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. 

 Winning over the pirate wing

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 Trump team when he was 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" to Trump's goals. 

 And yet DeStefano has won over the "pirate" wing led by Stephen 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. "He was 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 the key positions you have to fill and get filled right away." 

Started from the bottom now he’s here

 DeStefano's new post and ornate office are a long way from the Data Trust in downtown Washington, 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. 

 He climbed the ladder of Washington politics the traditional way. The summer of his junior year at Saint Louis University, his uncle, a longtime Capitol Hill chief of staff, helped get him an internship with then-Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. After graduation DeStefano got a job serving as liaison to outside conservative groups for the House Republican Conference, and when Democrats targeted Rep. Deborah Pryce in 2006, he went to Ohio to run her re-election campaign. 

'Not a flashy kind of guy’

The GOP lost the House — but Pryce squeaked by with 1,055 votes. Boehner took notice, and hired DeStefano to help recruit Republicans to run for the House. Then as head of member services, DeStefano advised tea party members elected in 2010 how to staff their offices. 

 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 like he hasn't moved in. Friends say the sparse office shouldn't be confused with disengagement: DeStefano is a strategic thinker with a radar for assessing people's talents. 

 "You're not going to see pictures of Johnny in the Oval with President Trump," says Brett Loper, the top policy aide to Boehner who is senior vice president of government affairs at American Express. "You might see a leftover dish that once contained ice cream. He's not a flashy, let-me-show-off-my-relationships-in-Washington kind of guy.'' 

Managing the chaos

But there are some small signs of his new prominence. The regular guy who seems most at home talking about his beloved Kansas City Royals signs job offers with a more formal version of his name: "John DeStefano." This has led to ribbing from friends, including Boehner, who know him only as Johnny. 

 Leaving behind the nickname only serves to reinforce that DeStefano is a player with considerable stroke — part facilitator, part closer. He's the man bringing the president the names of candidates who must get Senate sign-off after Cabinet secretaries and a long line of senior White House aides have weighed in. The competing powers in the inner circle often can't agree, and DeStefano nudges them to consensus or starts over. 

 In a White House besieged by infighting, he tries to manage the chaos. 

 "Johnny takes a lot of heat," said 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." 

'What you're getting with Johnny’

DeStefano finds himself firing back at naysayers who think that Trump is moving too slowly to staff the government. Bill Clinton had 100 people looking through résumés 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. 

 Which makes sense coming from someone who didn't aspire 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 president-elect's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, at Trump Tower. DeStefano was getting ready to fly home to ask his girlfriend, Sarah Cascio, a property manager he met in Kansas City, to marry him. 

 One problem: DeStefano hadn't put on a suit in years. The ones in his closet were too snug. He squeezed into his best one, and has since seen a tailor. 

 "Literally, this came out of the blue," Boehner says. "You don't have to wonder what you're getting with Johnny. He brings stability." 

 ‘Never Trumpers’ immediately disqualified

He 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, R, 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. (Never Trumpers or those who said something unflattering about the candidate on Twitter or Facebook are almost always disqualified.) 

 "It's my job if I see any daylight anywhere to make sure it's dealt with before it gets to the president," DeStefano says. 

 Not a spoils system

He's also the gatekeeper, culling from thousands of résumés —the White House won't say how many — in the personnel office's database for lower-level posts that don't require Senate confirmation. Few of 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 secretaries when their picks aren't going to fly with the White House. 

 So where do you begin to hire 4,000 people who want to upend the federal government as we know it? 

 For starters, this isn't a 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 people who have "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 calls it an "opportunity." 

 Reforming from within

Hiring in the Trump White House can take unpredictable turns. After fast-food executive Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination to be labor secretary in February, DeStefano had met with the president about potential replacements when Bannon came into the Oval Office with two of his own picks — one of whom was a former U.S. attorney from Miami who had interviewed for an agency general counsel job. The team immediately met with him, shifted gears, and Trump nominated Alexander Acosta for labor secretary. 

 When Priebus called, DeStefano had been running Data Trust for four years. His friends say he doesn't get enough credit for building up what was an anemic operation almost from scratch. 

 "It was a place that was not functioning," said Guy Harrison, who ran the House Republican fundraising arm with DeStefano as second-in command. "He's really good at reforming from within."


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Guns, opioids dominate talk at local Washington fly-in
Guns, opioids dominate talk at local Washington fly-in

The Dayton Development Coalition’s annual fly-in to Washington is typically a pretty locally-driven affair — lots of discussion of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Wright Brothers historical sites — but on Wednesday, the conversation briefly veered into a national social issue. Asked whether he supports outlawing assault rifles...
Moraine considers filling open council seat after longtime leader dies
Moraine considers filling open council seat after longtime leader dies

Four applicants for the vacant Moraine City Council seat created by last month’s death of Jim McGuire will be the topic of a special meeting tonight as the deadline for filling the post draws near. Council is set to meet at 6 p.m. to consider Bob Allen, Rocky Bangert, Donald Burchett and Basil Tom Hicks for the at-large seat, one of two on Moraine&rsquo...
Major reforms could come to payday lending industry in Ohio
Major reforms could come to payday lending industry in Ohio

A week after Republican Cliff Rosenberger’s abrupt resignation, state lawmakers moved to push through the strongest reforms on payday lending that Ohio has seen in a decade. House Bill 123 calls for closing loopholes, limiting monthly payments to no more than 5 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, limiting fees to $20 or no more than...
Kucinich discloses $20,000 speaking fee from pro-Syrian group
Kucinich discloses $20,000 speaking fee from pro-Syrian group

Democrat Dennis Kucinich is under attack for his association with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and now disclosure of a $20,000 payment he received from a pro-Assad group. Former Ohio governor Ted Strickland accused Kucinich of deliberately trying to hide the $20,000 payment by listing the income on his ethics statement without disclosing that it...
The fight with the West is isolating Russia. But that isn’t stopping Putin.
The fight with the West is isolating Russia. But that isn’t stopping Putin.

At least one bright spot stands out in the Russian economy, even as its prospects darken in the face of escalating sanctions: the manufacture of work uniforms.  The production of specialized work clothes, including bulletproof vests, is one of the lone growth areas in the economy, up by 27 percent, said Igor Nikolaev, director of the Strategic...
More Stories