Even in Trump's White House, being nice can pay off
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In the reality competition of “Survivor: White House Edition,” senior aide Johnny DeStefano is coming out ahead.
He’s outlasted President Donald Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as four White House communications directors, one national security adviser, one director of the National Economic Council and a secretary of state — not to mention roughly 25 of his fellow White House aides.
Amid the recent West Wing exodus, DeStefano — who initially ran the office of presidential personnel — has seen his portfolio grow. He now supervises the office responsible for hiring political appointees at agencies as well as the White House political shop monitoring the midterm elections and the Office of Public Liaison, which is responsible for outreach to outside groups and supporters.
It’s a portfolio that arguably rivals the one held by Karl Rove under President George W. Bush — even if, internally, DeStefano is not seen as the same kind of master strategist. But 10 senior administration officials and close White House advisers say DeStefano has managed to increase his power and stick around in an infamously cutthroat environment the old-fashioned way: by being nice to everyone.
DeStefano’s experience inside the White House offers a road map for other aides who want to thrive and enjoy themselves in the Trump orbit: Avoid the limelight, act like a staffer instead of a star and never pick sides among the White House’s various factions.
“Johnny has had a standing weekly appointment to talk about personnel with the president. They’ve come to know each other better. Johnny does not sugarcoat bad news, and often compliments a colleague’s efforts where others might spend that time puffing up themselves,” said presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway.
DeStefano, 39, was initially tagged as a Priebus acolyte and spent the first few months of the administration battling with a handful of Cabinet secretaries over personnel issues, including Rex Tillerson, who once blew up at DeStefano in front of colleagues inside the West Wing.
But the longtime aide to former House Speaker John Boehner has bridged the establishment and Trump wings of the White House, cultivating relationships with the president, chief of staff John Kelly, and Kelly’s former deputy and close ally Kirstjen Nielsen, now the secretary of Homeland Security. He’s able to do this, allies and friends say, by coming across as nonthreatening.
His status is reflected in his real estate: He recently moved from the first floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the second floor of the West Wing into the office previously occupied by departed top national security adviser Dina Powell, where he sits alongside Conway, Ivanka Trump, soon-to-depart chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and Don McGahn, the top White House attorney.
DeStefano now regularly travels with the president and can often be seen folding his tall frame into Marine One.
Inside the White House, DeStefano has developed a reputation as someone who gets along with almost everyone but is comfortable enough to publicly contradict his colleagues and superiors, including presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. “He is very upfront. I’ve sat in staff meetings with him, and even if his point is contrary to Jared’s, Johnny will push back and is very good at doing so. People respect him,” said one former White House official.
But to detractors, DeStefano’s ascendance is also emblematic of how shallow the bench of talent is for Republicans willing to work in this White House.
“Here is someone who ran the presidential personnel office and was not viewed as doing it that well,” said one person close to the White House. “So there is a lot of irony that someone whose performance has been fine but sort of mediocre now has more responsibility.”
This person added that DeStefano had benefited from the unusual level of turnover around him: “DeStefano was in the right place at the right time.”
DeStefano did not respond to requests for comment.
Originally, DeStefano had no designs on joining the Trump White House during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to close friends and former colleagues. The Missouri native had worked for the House Republican Conference, the National Republican Congressional Committee, Ohio Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce’s reelection campaign, and as political director and senior adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, also from Ohio.
After Boehner retired, DeStefano became the president and chief executive officer of The Data Trust, the Republican Party’s main outside data firm which, when he joined in 2013, was struggling to play catch-up with the Democrats’ data and tech prowess in campaigns. It’s since grown to have roughly 30 staffers.