The Trump campaign built a large policy shop in Washington that has now largely melted away because of neglect, mismanagement and promises of pay that were never honored. Many of the team’s former members say the campaign leadership never took the Washington office seriously and let it wither away after squeezing it dry.
Donald Trump often brags about having experts and senior former officials advising him. Wednesday night in a forum on national security, he said, “We have admirals, we have generals, we have colonels. We have a lot of people that I respect.” It’s true that Trump is getting high-level policy advice on a regular basis from senior experts such as Rudy Giuliani and retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn. But Trump has never acknowledged the policy shop based in Washington that has been doing huge amounts of grunt work for months without recognition or compensation.
Since April, advisers never named in campaign press releases have been working in an Alexandria-based office, writing policy memos, organizing briefings, managing surrogates and placing op-eds. They put in long hours before and during the Republican National Convention to help the campaign look like a professional operation.
But in August, shortly after the convention, most of the policy shop’s most active staffers quit. Although they signed non-disclosure agreements, several of them told me on background that the Trump policy effort has been a mess from start to finish.
“It’s a complete disaster,” one disgruntled former adviser told me. “They use and abuse people. The policy office fell apart in August when the promised checks weren’t delivered.”
Three former members, all of whom quit in August, told me that as early as April they were promised financial compensation but were later told that they would have to work as volunteers. They say the leaders of the shop, Rick Dearborn and John Mashburn, told many staffers that money was on the way but then were unable to deliver. Dearborn is Sen. Jeff Sessions’s (R-Ala.) chief of staff, while Mashburn is the former chief of staff for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C).
“I heard it from Dearborn, I heard it from Mashburn. It was understood that we would be paid. The campaign never discussed how much the pay would be. It was never in writing,” said one staffer, who quit last month. “There were some people who were treating it as a full-time job. I suspect that those people were quite astonished when the pay didn’t come through.”
One former adviser told me promises of pay were made when Corey Lewandowski was campaign manager, but then in July, after Paul Manafort took over, he said the policy shop positions would remain unpaid. Dearborn tried repeatedly to get a budget approved by New York headquarters for staff, but failed.
Some former staffers say Dearborn was not responsible for the broken promises of pay for policy staffers.
“Rick Dearborn was always professional and forthcoming with me,” said Pratik Chougule, who held the title of policy coordinator in the D.C. Trump office until he quit last month. “I was certainly under the expectation I would be paid at some point, but I don’t blame Rick Dearborn.”
Campaign spokesman Jason Miller acknowledged that the Washington policy office grew smaller in August, but he called the effort a success.
“The policy shop has been very successful with the campaign. It’s been a large part of the reason Trump has gone on such a positive run over the month of August,” Miller said. “Following the convention, much of the activity has gravitated towards New York, simply because that’s where the full-time multi-floored campaign operation was set up.”
As for promises to pay the policy staffers, Miller said, “No such oral agreements were made.” He said Dearborn is getting paid, in addition to his Senate staff salary, but said Dearborn is following all ethics rules that apply to staffers who also work for campaigns.
The list of people who quit the Trump D.C. policy office is long. It includes J.D. Gordon, who was the office’s director of national security and was instrumental in organizing Trump’s “national security advisory committee,” led by Sessions. Also, conservative author William Triplett, Tera Dahl (a former assistant to Michele Bachmann), Ying Ma (who previously worked for Ben Carson) and many others.
Some of the staffers, like Gordon, were working full time for the campaign. Others, like Chougule, pitched in part time while doing other work. Some of the team is still doing work for the campaign. For example, Joe Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general who resigned amid scandal, set up a “surrogate war room” and continues to send memos to New York headquarters.
The real policy work in the Trump campaign is now done by a small team based in New York’s Trump Tower, led by Stephen Miller, the staffer who leads the writing of Trump’s policy speeches and travels with the candidate. There are other paid staffers in New York, including deputy policy director Dan Kowalski. Walid Phares, the Middle East adviser on Trump’s policy team, was getting paid $13,000 a month in addition to being a paid analyst on Fox News.
In April, when the policy office was stood up, the campaign was bracing for a long primary fight that many inside Trump World thought would last through the convention. But after Trump secured the nomination and the convention ended, the enthusiasm for policy details waned.
“The campaign knew there were doubts about whether Trump had enough knowledge of policy and whether he had good people advising him,” one of the former advisers said. “Later, the rationale for the policy office as the campaign saw it kind of went away.”
The last straw for some came in early August, when the Washington policy shop held two marathon work sessions designed to plan out how to get Trump ready for the policy portions of the upcoming presidential debates. The Washington policy team came up with detailed plans about who would brief Trump on specific policy topics over the course of several weeks.
But after Dearborn worked his staff overtime to get the recommendations, the campaign leadership decided to go in a different direction. “The New York office realized that their candidate would not be receptive to that level of intense preparation,” one former adviser said.
A lot of the policy office’s work seemed to be just for show. For example, it organized national security and economic advisory teams that are not actually advising the candidate on a regular basis. The national security advisory committee met with Trump only once. Some of its members who have gotten a lot of attention, such as Russia expert Carter Page, have never met with Trump one on one.
“The national security advisory board was total nonsense. They had absolutely no say in anything,” one of the former advisers said. “Most of them are just names on paper.”
There are still a few people left in Trump’s Washington policy shop, mostly working part time. Some, including Dearborn, are in the process of moving over to the transition team, which is guaranteed money from the taxpayers, according to a law passed to ensure smooth transfers of power between administrations.
Those who remain now understand that their work is on a volunteer basis and may never actually be seen by the candidate. Those who left have learned a lesson about working on presidential campaigns: You give your time at your own risk. If you don’t have a contract, you don’t have any recourse.
The Trump campaign doesn’t appear to think policy depth is a required quality for a presidential candidate or a presidential campaign to succeed. That may prove to be right, but those who gave their time to work for Trump’s Washington shop didn’t know that upfront. They do now.
“If people are going to vote for Trump, it’s not going to be for policy. That’s not who Trump is; that’s not the campaign,” said one former adviser. “Would I say we had any demonstrable effect on anything they did in the campaign? No. None of us in the D.C. office were in Trump’s inner circle. It’s questionable still who is.”