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 swamp.
So the ideal applicant wouldn’t have spent much of his career on Capitol Hill as DeStefano has, starting with a college internship. Or served as political director for former House speaker John A. 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, Mo., from getting an under-the-radar role as someone to see in Trump world.
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 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.
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 K. Bannon, Trump’s combative chief strategist.
Bannon 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.”
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 reelection campaign.
The GOP lost the House — but Pryce squeaked by with a margin of 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 on 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 as though 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.”
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,” says 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.”
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.”
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.
He and his team are also the gatekeepers, culling thousands of résumés — the White House won’t say how many — in the personnel office’s database to create a list for lower-level posts that don’t require Senate confirmation. Few of the top jobs are filled from that list; instead they 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 he calls it an “opportunity.”
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.”