In the reality competition of “Survivor: White House Edition,” senior aide Johnny DeStefano is coming out ahead.
He’s outlasted President Donald Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as four White House communications directors, one national security adviser, one director of the National Economic Council and a secretary of state — not to mention roughly 25 of his fellow White House aides.
Amid the recent West Wing exodus, DeStefano — who initially ran the office of presidential personnel — has seen his portfolio grow. He now supervises the office responsible for hiring political appointees at agencies as well as the White House political shop monitoring the midterm elections and the Office of Public Liaison, which is responsible for outreach to outside groups and supporters.
It’s a portfolio that arguably rivals the one held by Karl Rove under President George W. Bush — even if, internally, DeStefano is not seen as the same kind of master strategist. But 10 senior administration officials and close White House advisers say DeStefano has managed to increase his power and stick around in an infamously cutthroat environment the old-fashioned way: by being nice to everyone.
DeStefano’s experience inside the White House offers a road map for other aides who want to thrive and enjoy themselves in the Trump orbit: Avoid the limelight, act like a staffer instead of a star and never pick sides among the White House’s various factions.
“Johnny has had a standing weekly appointment to talk about personnel with the president. They’ve come to know each other better. Johnny does not sugarcoat bad news, and often compliments a colleague’s efforts where others might spend that time puffing up themselves,” said presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway.
DeStefano, 39, was initially tagged as a Priebus acolyte and spent the first few months of the administration battling with a handful of Cabinet secretaries over personnel issues, including Rex Tillerson, who once blew up at DeStefano in front of colleagues inside the West Wing.
But the longtime aide to former House Speaker John Boehner has bridged the establishment and Trump wings of the White House, cultivating relationships with the president, chief of staff John Kelly, and Kelly’s former deputy and close ally Kirstjen Nielsen, now the secretary of Homeland Security. He’s able to do this, allies and friends say, by coming across as nonthreatening.
His status is reflected in his real estate: He recently moved from the first floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the second floor of the West Wing into the office previously occupied by departed top national security adviser Dina Powell, where he sits alongside Conway, Ivanka Trump, soon-to-depart chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and Don McGahn, the top White House attorney.
DeStefano now regularly travels with the president and can often be seen folding his tall frame into Marine One.
Inside the White House, DeStefano has developed a reputation as someone who gets along with almost everyone but is comfortable enough to publicly contradict his colleagues and superiors, including presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. “He is very upfront. I’ve sat in staff meetings with him, and even if his point is contrary to Jared’s, Johnny will push back and is very good at doing so. People respect him,” said one former White House official.
But to detractors, DeStefano’s ascendance is also emblematic of how shallow the bench of talent is for Republicans willing to work in this White House.
“Here is someone who ran the presidential personnel office and was not viewed as doing it that well,” said one person close to the White House. “So there is a lot of irony that someone whose performance has been fine but sort of mediocre now has more responsibility.”
This person added that DeStefano had benefited from the unusual level of turnover around him: “DeStefano was in the right place at the right time.”
DeStefano did not respond to requests for comment.
Originally, DeStefano had no designs on joining the Trump White House during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to close friends and former colleagues. The Missouri native had worked for the House Republican Conference, the National Republican Congressional Committee, Ohio Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce’s reelection campaign, and as political director and senior adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, also from Ohio.
After Boehner retired, DeStefano became the president and chief executive officer of The Data Trust, the Republican Party’s main outside data firm which, when he joined in 2013, was struggling to play catch-up with the Democrats’ data and tech prowess in campaigns. It’s since grown to have roughly 30 staffers.
Data Trust’s biggest client was the Republican National Commttee, which was then run by Priebusff. In the fall of 2016, Priebus went looking for someone to run the presidential personnel office and tapped DeStefano.
His appointment at first alarmed Trump supporters who feared DeStefano would stack the federal government with Republicans who would not be true to the Trump agenda. But the pick made sense, say some of DeStefano’s friends and former colleagues, because his job in Boehner’s office was to place members on committees and handle problems quietly on behalf of the speaker, like urging the resignation of one lawmaker who had a drug problem and another who had a relationship with a subordinate. DeStefano had to handle such problems while maintaining good relationships with other lawmakers, staff and donors.
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2016, DeStefano started his job overseeing the administration’s personnel picks — really, the hiring of thousands of political appointees, counselors and ambassadors at everywhere from the Department of Education to State, Treasury, Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency.
He entered the White House with no real rosters of potential staffers, no process for finding candidates for them and tons of jobs to fill. During the first few months of the Trump presidency, the personnel office regularly came under fire for the slow pace of nominations, the lack of appointees going through the clearance process, and the skeletal crews of political people running agencies — a fact that critics and conservatives say slowed down Trump’s ability to begin to institute his agenda.
Allies of DeStefano, both inside and outside the administration, say he inherited a mess of a situation after the ouster of the first transition leader, former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and did the best he could. But DeStefano bore the brunt of that criticism, without publicly pushing back.
One of DeStefano’s earliest claims to fame in the administration came shortly after Trump’s inauguration, when he signed the White House letter that fired acting attorney general Sally Yates after she refused to enact Trump’s travel ban executive order.
Yet during that time, he also tussled with Kelly — then serving as secretary of DHS — over a handful of political appointments. When Kelly then moved over to the White House to serve as chief of staff in July 2017, DeStefano assumed he was in trouble, according to people familiar with his situation.
Kelly’s closest ally in the administration, Nielsen, even carried out her own internal analysis over the summer to examine the personnel problems in the West Wing, effectively checking over his work, said one administration official.
But Kelly soon came to see DeStefano as a competent staffer who did not seek the spotlight and made him part of the chief of ’s tiny inner circle, according to two people close to the White House.
Kelly even admitted once in front of the president in the Oval Office that he and DeStefano used to fight during Kelly’s stint at DHS but that Kelly had come to view DeStefano as someone who “knew his shit,” according to one of the people close to the White House.
This fall, that level of trust translated into a broader portfolio for DeStefano in which he oversees three offices and the heads of those offices — personnel, public liaison and the political office. This new role has placed DeStefano above the original head of the political office, Bill Stepien, a former New Jersey political operative who’s close to Kushner, and it will give him much more influence over the crucial, upcoming midterm elections.
“I think a lot of people underestimate Johnny, but he is really good at building relationships and always has been,” says Mike Sommers, Boehner’s former chief of staff. “He’s been effective in every position he has been in. At age 23, coming out of Saint Louis University, a lot of people never would have thought he would be where he is today.”