What will Trump administration officials do after they leave?
Serving a president used to grant a level of prestige, and administration officials looked forward to a lucrative move through Washington’s revolving door toward book deals, television contracts, corporate boards or even a possible university presidency.
But like many other norms in Washington, Donald Trump may have broken that prestige payoff system.
“We would advise anyone in the Trump administration who is considering their future that the rules aren’t the same for them as for veterans of other administrations,” said Matt Latimer, a Republican literary agent who had previously worked for George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “That may not seem fair, but it’s the truth, and they need to think carefully and strategically about how to disengage from an administration viewed by many powerful people outside of it as toxic.”
That toxicity peaked again as the nation saw powerful images of crying children separated from their parents and heard audio of them wailing inside detention centers, a result of the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. Former first ladies lined up to condemn the policy as shameful.
Joe Scarborough, the co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and a frequent critic of the Trump administration, put a finer — and more personal — point on it: “When you look at the lies and the shameless statements White House stooges put out, you understand why so many of them cannot find jobs in the private sector,” he tweeted. “They know that Trump is making them radioactive. He is stripping them of any credibility they may have ever had.”
Granted, just seventeen months into the Trump administration, it’s a little soon to say. Some of the bigger names to have left the White House are still enjoying some of the early perks that awaited top-line veterans of previous administrations in those first vacation months — among them, lucrative speaking gigs. Many in Trump’s inner circle were paid $179,900 a year, roughly the same amount Stephen K. Bannon was paid for a single speech he delivered in Asia. Sean Spicer signed with Worldwide Speakers Group and gave a six-figure speech on the media in the United Arab Emirates.
Yet the book deals and cable-news jobs lavished on prior White House alumni seem more elusive now. Spicer spent six months as White House press secretary, which he kicked off with a statement he never really escaped, exaggerating the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. After he left the administration, he was courted by ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” shopped for a contributor contract at a cable news network and contemplated a book.
CNN said almost immediately it wasn’t going to offer him a job. Fox News seemed like the obvious home. Two previous press secretaries for George W. Bush — Dana Perino and Ari Fleischer — are employed there (Perino as a host and Fleischer as a contributor). But Fox News was not interested.
Spicer met with 11 different publishers as he tried to find the right publisher for a book. Rather than signing a deal with a mainstream publishing house, he landed with the conservative imprint Regnery, whose other authors include the recently pardoned Dinesh D’Souza and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka.
In an interview, Spicer said he chose Regnery because it was the only house that allowed him the authorial freedom he was seeking. He also recently signed on as spokesman and senior adviser to the Trump-aligned super PAC America First Action.
Spicer, who appeared Monday night at a gathering for the group at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, said things have been “fantastic” since he left the White House. “Everyone wants to say there’s a problem with the Trump folks after they leave, but it’s not true.”
One current member of the White House who might be open to that message is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Spicer’s successor, who has stood on the podium longer than Spicer did. She has developed an even more antagonistic relationship with the press than Spicer.
Last week, CBS reported that Sanders was making plans to leave the White House. She did not deny the story but asked on Twitter whether CBS News knew something about her plans and her future that she doesn’t. “I love my job and am honored to work for @POTUS,” Sanders wrote.
The categories of people coming out of administrations have always been the same: those whose reputations are improved, those who emerge from an administration the same as when they went in, and those for whom their time in the White House left a damaging imprint on their reputations for many, many years.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation has nudged some Trump officials to leave. “Unlike past administrations, the majority of the people who have left, I don’t know necessarily if they’ve left in a better position than they were before,” said Sam Nunberg, an early campaign adviser to Trump.
Some former advisers seem to have flourished in the short term, perhaps by virtue of leaving Washington. Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, had the shortest tenure — 189 days — of any non-interim White House chief of staff in U.S. history. He returned to his Wisconsin law firm and signed with the Washington Speakers Bureau. Dina Powell, a well-regarded deputy national security adviser, similarly returned to her former employer, Goldman Sachs, but was added to the firm’s powerful management committee, a significant step up. Rachel Brand, the third-highest-ranked official at the Justice Department, announced her resignation in February to become a top executive at Walmart. (Had she stayed, she would have been in line to take over supervision of the Russia investigation if Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein were to quit or be fired.)
Part of the issue might be that the Trump administration populated itself with unusual candidates. “Many of the people who came into the Trump administration, especially at the lower levels, were not the usual operatives that populate other administrations. They are less experienced, lack the Washington polish, and tend to be more devoted to Trump instead of to party insiders,” said Latimer, founding partner at Javelin, a Washington public relations and literary agency. “That is a barrier when you escape and try to assimilate into the wilds of Washington.”
Nunberg, who has accrued some consulting jobs since the campaign, has been questioned by Mueller’s team and had a much-publicized breakdown on air about it, offered this sage advice to offer those preparing to leave Trump’s circle: “The way to succeed post-President Trump in your career is not to feel accountable to President Trump.”
This story has been updated.