“I had fish disappear,” he said.
He spent those years tending to another fragile ecosystem, the Republican Party.
He helped get the GOP out of debt when he took over as chairman in 2011, tried to expand the tent to more Hispanic and Black voters after an electoral drubbing in 2012 and, although reluctant at first, became a vociferous Trump defender during the 2016 campaign before serving as his envoy to Establishment Washington when he took office. A consummate people-pleaser who became a popular party chair, Priebus soon found himself displeasing everyone: the Never Trumpers for standing by his man despite odious behavior; the MAGA crowd for never fully being one of them; and eventually the president, who ended his tenure with a tweet as Priebus sat in a waiting SUV on an airplane tarmac in a rain-soaked suit.
Now, it’s Trump who has disappeared — from Twitter, and from Washington. Priebus remains, with a tank full of fellow survivors.
“I’m happy to report that since I’ve left most of my official political activities there has been no death within the aquarium,” he says. “There has just been life and growth.”
He just celebrated his 49th birthday, enjoying a nice Mediterranean meal with his wife at Cava Mezze, after a day of Zoom appearances through the Speakers Bureau — speaking gigs that have, at times, earned him six figures. He talks about what he knows best: how Trump comes to his decisions, what could happen with legislation and the future of the Republican Party, which still sees Trump as its North Star.
He has an office by the Wharf, a recently redeveloped waterfront part of town that resembles a luxurious outdoor mall on the Potomac. For Priebus, the water is just fine.
What about the rest of the specimens? After four tempestuous years, thousands of former administration staffers find themselves in a familiar situation as old as Washington itself: trying to leverage their federal experience into further employment.
It has been tricky to calibrate. In normal times, people like former administration officials could move effortlessly from the White House to the golden arches of McDonald’s, or be delivered directly to a prime job as the head of communications for Amazon. Lower-tier staffers could tell potential employers that their time in government afforded them a deep understanding of legislative “process” and could be handed six-figure lobbying jobs.
But after four years of watching the Trump administration appease white supremacists, demonize and tear-gas Black Lives Matter protesters, ban travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, separate children from their families at the Mexico border and inspire an insurrection at the Capitol, a lot of companies have developed something of a moral core (or, more likely, a fear of backlash).
And so the nameless staffers looking for jobs in Washington are de-emphasizing their time with Trump on their résumés if they want to work in corporate America, starting their own groups or playing up their Trumpiness for a job on the Hill, where the ex-president is practically a religious idol in the Republican caucus.
The bigger names have found off-brand versions of big gigs: Sean Spicer, Trump’s first press secretary, hosts a prime-time TV show on a station, Newsmax, that no one can find on their cable box. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway has begun penning a tell-all of her time in the White House that has rattled some of her former colleagues and reportedly earned her a multimillion-dollar advance. Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, has joined a think tank. Former secretary of housing and urban development Ben Carson started a think-tank-like organization of his own, which he’s calling (smirks, tents fingers) a “do tank.”
And Priebus? Well, we know about his tank.
Trump’s presidency was disruptive, but two things remain true about Washington: First, the people who run this place will often spend their time complaining about how awful it is here. And second, given every opportunity to leave, they’ll find a way to stay. Priebus is just one of many ambitious former Trump staffers with designs on increasing their influence — or at the very least, their wealth.
They’re betting a third Washington truism will also hold: There’s always enough chum in the water for a hungry fish to get a meal.
Matt Schlapp remembers leaving George W. Bush's White House, where he had been political director, and feeling as if there was so much interest in his skill set and résumé that he could "go shopping" for jobs. He got out early, shortly after Bush's reelection. His friends who stuck around until the end of what turned into an unpopular presidency weren't so lucky.
“It was like a jobs desert,” he said. “But even that was nothing compared to what Trump-Pence people are finding themselves in today.”
Several former Trump officials told The Washington Post that the job climate was even more difficult than they believed it would be, and Trump and former vice president Mike Pence have kept a coterie of staffers on their payrolls, some because they have not been able to find other work. Some seem to have disappeared. Kirstjen Nielsen, the former head of homeland security who is linked to the family separations at the border, sold her house in Washington, according to a person familiar with the decision, and moved in hopes that fewer people would recognize her in public. Mark Meadows, the president’s former chief of staff, changed his longtime cellphone number. A number of other Cabinet secretaries have struggled to find jobs, while Pompeo is beginning to take political meetings and interview aides as he eyes a potential presidential bid, people who have talked to him say. Many of Trump’s political advisers are still circling the boss, looking for lucrative political contracts out of his $80 million PAC budget.
Many of the contracts around Trump are now worth more than $10,000 a month, with at least one aide making $30,000 per month, officials said. Trump, for his part, is said to be aware of this and thinking about cutting some of the contracts.
Elsewhere, Trump résumés allegedly are being treated like . . . fish wrap.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone in Washington said to me, ‘Hey, I’m really looking to hire someone for X job, but they can’t have worked for the Trump administration,’ I’d have a great sum of money,” said Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, worked in Trump’s press office. (The Schlapps, who offended their Alexandria, Va., neighbors by hoisting a Trump flag atop a crane in front of their $3.5 million house, are doing just fine.)
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Armstrong Williams, a D.C. Trump supporter and confidant of Carson’s. “I helped a very high-ranking Trump official secure a position, but after January 6, it was rescinded. I’ve seen it happen to many, many people.”
One way the Ever Trumpers have tried to circumvent the judgment of others is to hang out a shingle of their own. Chad Wolf, a former head of the Department of Homeland Security, has started a consulting firm. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s most hard-line immigration policies, is launching an organization to help attorneys general sue President Biden. A number of other former Trump aides, such as former Office of Management and Budget director Russell Vought and former domestic policy adviser Brooke Rollins, have launched their own nonprofit groups, seeking to raise money from Trump donors.
And Carson, who came to Washington after a highly successful career as a pediatric brain surgeon as an “outsider” candidate for president, has decided to stick around and do the most insider thing possible by starting his think tank. (Sorry, his do tank.)
“The concept of retiring, relaxing, playing golf, playing piano, all seemed very appealing,” Carson said in a phone call. “And then I started thinking about the kids. All the kids.”
For the most part, Carson’s newly created American Cornerstone Institute will allow the good doctor to travel the country, in an effort to heal the nation with roundtable discussions about conservative values. But one thing he’s particularly excited about is using the think tank to launch a program he’s calling Little Patriots.
“It will be something like the Boy Scouts,” he said. “But heavily exposed to the real history of America.”
“You probably notice when ISIS goes into a place, they destroy the history, they destroy the monuments,” he said, using a term for the Islamic State. “History is what gives you identity.”
Carson’s think/do tank announced itself with the kind of fanfare — a gauzy video with flags and a reverent speech about the American way of life — that might prompt one to develop suspicions about what Carson is really thinking of doing.
“He will never say never,” said Williams, his friend. “If that’s what he feels is his calling, he’ll step right back into it. Unfortunately.”
Why not? Trump is no longer Washington's present, but the narrowness of his loss and the garment-rending fealty he continues to inspire in the Republican base have led many to believe that Trumpism may yet be Washington's future. Flushing his local loyalists down the drain of history may not be an option for Washington's hiring classes.
“More and more people appear to be forgetting what happened in January,” said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a Republican lobbyist. With a Republican House, Senate and White House all a real possibility, companies may come to believe that the benefits of having a Trump staffer on board outweigh the possible bad press.
“Businesses are still going to look out for businesses interests,” Spicer says. “I think most people here understand how to play the long game.”
Washington is overflowing with people and institutions that have the appetite of a blue whale and the memory of a goldfish.
Which brings us, once again, to Priebus.
A friendly Midwesterner with an allergy to conflict and a jones for validation, Priebus is a Washingtonian at his core, a man who loves to be spotted in Politico Playbook and attend fancy garden brunches and galas. He is a member of a ritzy Alexandria private country club and sometimes employs a driver. One friend of Priebus’s, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said that there’s nothing the former chief likes more than “being in the mix.” Perhaps that’s partially why he decided against going home to Wisconsin, despite returning to the old law firm he started, which is based in Milwaukee — and has represented Trump.
In two recent interviews, Priebus was careful not to make waves — asking to go off the record when any question with even a hint of controversy was raised.
Priebus took the Trump job, according to people who know him, to be a voice of reason in an often unreasonable White House. Like others who shared this optimism, Priebus was knocked around and then bounced out; unlike others who shared this disappointment, he did not grouse about it. Other chiefs of staff and senior advisers reportedly criticize Trump after they’ve left. (John Kelly told friends that Trump was the “most flawed person” he’d ever met and did not vote for him. Even Mick Mulvaney has called out Trump for “manifestly false” statements about the Capitol riot.) Priebus has been conspicuously quiet — even after Jan. 6.
“I respect the president,” he says.
“I don’t believe in burning bridges,” he says.
He believes in keeping chemical levels in balance, the salinity in check, the temperature and flow properly calibrated.
Priebus talks to potential candidates for federal office, including potential 2024 candidates, on a regular basis. He catches up with Trump by phone occasionally. He tries to defend Trump when he can and stay silent when he can’t.
In the past decade, since he became chairman, the Republican Party has become more powerful than ever; arguably it has never stood for less, philosophically speaking, but so far that hasn’t really been a problem.
There’s been plenty of life and growth. Not too many disappearances. Better to be in the tank than out to sea.