Donald Trump is still clinging to the delusion that he could still be President of the United States after 12.01 pm on 20 January, 2021 — but most of the thousands of political appointees who serve in his administration have seen the writing on the wall.
The most prominent of those soon-to-be ex-Trump administration officials is his chief law enforcement officer, William Barr. Although the Attorney General has been one of the president’s staunchest allies, Barr was recently reported to be considering an early resignation after angering Trump by acknowledging that his evidence-free claims of rampant fraud plaguing the election he lost are just that: evidence-free.
Yet even as Trump continues to claim that he won an election he lost handily and his allies continue filing lawsuits which have rejected by some of the most conservative jurists in the United States, administration officials at all levels have to risk being fired or blacklisted by Trumpworld when they put out feelers for their next career moves. That’s because doing so means defying edicts forbidding them to job-hunt.
One top K Street executive said Trump’s reluctance to admit the obvious has created “a complicated scenario” for those who know they’ll be out of work in 43 days.
“You have a mix of staffers quietly looking or kind of feeling it out,” they said, noting that they’d been having preliminary conversations with some Trump staffers who are looking for advice, but not as many as they might usually be having at this point in a presidential transition.
“There are just a bunch of people that haven't reached out who normally would have [to help themselves] at this point… It’s a concern shared by everybody who wants to help these folks,” they explained.
The executive, a DC veteran with a deep network of contacts from both parties, said the insistence that Trump staffers at all levels share in the president’s denial of reality is also making it harder for the more experienced ones to assist their junior colleagues in finding the next steps on the Washington career ladder. That’s true even in places like Capitol Hill, where ex-White House staffers would normally be hot commodities among Republican members.
One of the more senior Trump officials they’d talked to, the official said, had to decline an offer to participate in an event catered to transition-time job seekers “because of the blowback she would’ve gotten internally, even though… she's the type of person that would have wanted to help her fellow colleagues who are much younger than her or… aren’t going to be as easily employed in the future.”
“Political winds shift all the time around here, but the unfortunate part for those poor people — especially the more junior and mid-level folks who are really going to struggle to get a job — is that you’ve got to start early because these things fill up, especially on Capitol Hill where Republicans actually made some gains and they would have had some opportunities,” they added.
The uncertainty that White House staffers have faced regarding whether to job hunt while their boss was attempting to upend last month’s election results could be compounded by the Trump administration’s fraught relations with most of Washington and with the business community.
Traditionally, top officials from previous administrations have been sought after by some of the world’s largest corporations. Former President Barack Obama’s three White House press secretaries, for example, have been tapped to fill top corporate communications positions at McDonald’s, Amazon, and United Airlines, while one of George W Bush’s top flacks, Scott Stanzel, fills that role for Capital One Bank.
But after four years of an administration that seemed to delight in norm-breaking while shrugging off scandals — even ones as serious as the still-ongoing child separation crisis — some Democrats are hoping those who participated will face some comeuppance in the post-Trump job market.
“Is anyone archiving these Trump sycophants for when they try to downplay or deny their complicity in the future?” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter last month. “I foresee decent probability of many deleted Tweets, writings, photos in the future.”
One former Democratic National Committee communications staffer, Hari Sevugan, initially appeared to heed Ocasio-Cortez’s call by starting something called the “Trump Accountability Project”. However, the endeavor quickly folded after a few weeks, citing President-elect Joe Biden’s desire to unite the country.
“The Trump Accountability Project was started because we believe restoring democratic norms are vital to protecting America's future. A critical part of making sure the nation never finds itself in this position again is to make sure those members of the Trump administration responsible for loosening the guardrails of our democracy are not rewarded with book deals, TV contracts, or six-figure salaries in the private sector based on that experience,” read a statement on the group’s now-defunct website. “Ultimately, however, the goal of the project was to play a part in restoring the soul of the nation, and we'll follow President-elect Biden's lead to get us there.“
Whether or not there is any organized effort to pressure employers to “boycott” ex-Trump staffers, one former senior government official said the administration’s brand has become so toxic that many who served will have trouble finding people receptive to hiring them.
The ex-senior official, who has served in multiple administrations, said they were surprised by the reaction they’ve gotten from potential employers.
“There are many more than I expected — they don’t say this to me personally, but they say it to a third party — who say ‘there’s no way I would touch anybody from Trumpworld,’” they said.
And although Washington has traditionally been a town that functions by way of revolving doors every four or eight years, they said the reaction they’ve gotten has been far more emotional than during the last transition from a GOP administration. By the numbers, Trump is far more popular at this point in his term than George W Bush was during the transition to the Obama administration — but that’s not how it feels inside the machine. The official posited that the reason administration staffers might face problems finding work is because of things like Trump’s infamous family separation policy at the border.
“Even after explaining your rationale for why you stayed in and even if you didn’t do anything on immigration issues, it [the family separation policy] is a deeply emotional thing for them… they’ll never be able to forgive anybody associated with it,” they said, with the caveat that more junior staffers will probably not face the same scrutiny as those who were more public-facing or who served in high-level positions.
The former senior official added that even if one were to get hired at many large corporations, there might be internal pushback once it became known that a former Trump staffer had been brought on board.
“I don't know if emotion is always what guides an employer… or just the economics of it, or having to endure the public scrutiny that they might get, but there's also internal culture that might react badly to hiring of a Trump official,” they explained, citing the experience of former DHS Chief of Staff Miles Taylor, who left a job at Google after employees questioned why the company would hire a person who defended the Trump “Muslim ban” company executives had publicly opposed.
However, another Trump administration alumnus, former Assistant White House Press Secretary Austin Cantrell, said his experience since leaving the administration has been the exact opposite.
Cantrell, who hung out a shingle for his own eponymous communications firm after spending nearly three years in various White House communications roles, said his time in the Trump administration has been a source of fascination, even for his liberal clients.
“Even my clients who detest him — and I have several — always want to hear about my unique Trump experiences,” said Cantrell, who added that being able to tell prospective clients he made it through nearly three years of the Trump administration “makes people sit up, particularly because it means I know how to ride a bull and hang on better than anyone else on Earth”.
Cantrell pushed back on the suggestion that the Trump administration’s reputation in some circles has made White House experience less valuable to job-seekers or employers, citing the almost constant interest he has gotten from people he’s met since leaving.
“Your White House experiences will be something you will be asked about by your employers, employees, colleagues, and clients forever. Even my accountant — a Democrat — always wants to hear a story from my West Wing days whenever I call her,” he said.
But the operator of one of Washington’s top political job boards predicted that many Trumpworld alums will choose to remain outsiders to Washington when the ultimate outsider leaves office in January.
“The average staffer that populated the Trump administration wasn't as tied to DC as other administrations, so many of them might be going back to their other professions or cities that they came from and [fewer] will be career DC people than your typical administration,” said Tom Manatos, who has maintained an eponymous job board that has helped place thousands in political positions since 2002.
Manatos, who spends his days running Spotify’s Washington DC office, cited the many Bush administration alums who came with their boss from Texas and returned there after he left office as precedent.
“Even if you go back to the Bush administration, you had a ton of people who came with President Bush from Texas, and then as soon as his presidency was over, returned to Texas and never stayed,” he said. “You have that in every administration, but on the whole most Trump staffers did not originate from Capitol Hill, or one of the think tanks in DC. A lot more than normal came from outside of the DC world, therefore they're not likely to stay, compared to your typical administration.”
Cantrell, the former White House press office staffer, is back home in Florida, but is nonetheless keeping a toe dipped in the Washington milieu while he builds up his client base. No matter where his former colleagues go, he told me, they shouldn’t shy away from touting their time in the Trump administration as an asset to potential employers.
“You need to embrace it and recognize that you will be forever be on a different professional level because of it,” he said.
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