A fast-growing number of White House staffers are starting to look for the exits, even though the one-year mark of President Donald Trump’s first term is still months away.
Many who joined the administration in January did so with the explicit idea that they’d stay for at least a year, enough to credibly say they’d served. But in the aftermath of a wave of abrupt, high-profile departures over the summer that culminated with former strategist Steve Bannon’s ouster in August, aides up and down the chain are reaching out to headhunters, lobbyists, and GOP operatives for help finding their next job.
Staffers from the National Economic Council—where director Gary Cohn is expected to be on his way out altogether after tax reform or onto a different role—as well as the communications shop and beyond are quietly exploring their next moves. They’re talking to headhunters about positions as in-house government affairs experts at major companies, or as executives at trade associations, universities, or consulting firms – ironically, jobs that run counter to Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra.
Political appointees want to leave for myriad reasons, according to recruiters, Republican operatives, and White House officials. Morale is low, the Russia investigations only seem to grow in scope, and constant churn at the top has left some staffers without patrons in a workplace known for back-biting and a tribal-like attitude.
“There will be an exodus from this administration in January,” said one Republican lobbyist, who alone has heard from five officials looking for new gigs. “Everyone says, ‘I just need to stay for one year.’ If you leave before a year, it looks like you are acknowledging that you made a mistake.”
Staffers are already laying the groundwork through networking, lunches, and resumes sent to D.C.-based executive recruiters, so that they can a land new job by the start of 2018. Two headhunters confirmed that they had heard from multiple White House staffers.
“There is no joy in Trumpworld right now,” said one adviser in frequent contact with several staffers. “Working in the White House is supposed to be the peak of your career, but everyone is unhappy, and everyone is fighting everyone else.”
White House political positions are notorious burn-out jobs, with long hours and low pay in a high-stress, competitive environment, regardless of who is president.
“There is always a shake-out period at the beginning with a few people not working out,” said Anita Dunn, former White House communications director for Obama and senior adviser to his presidential campaigns. “But typically, you tend to get turnover at the two-year marks like after a mid-term or election."
President Barack Obama’s communications director, Ellen Moran, left after three months to join the Commerce Department as chief-of-staff, while two of Obama’s top economic and budget advisers, Peter Orszag and Christina Romer, resigned in the summer of 2010. President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff and childhood friend Mack McLarty left that top role in June 1994 after a rocky run and was replaced by Leon Panetta.
As Trump’s new chief of staff John Kelly has brought order to the decision-making process, officials say, and that has boosted morale among many policy staffers who finally feel included in the West Wing’s work, according to one senior administration official. But his presence has also meant that staffers loyal to other former leaders like Priebus or Bannon or those without a defined portfolio may no longer have the clout they once enjoyed. And some staffers just feel tired by the ever-shifting power map within the West Wing.
“I would say about anybody looking to leave that they are probably having a hard time keeping up with President Trump. You sign on for this, and you’ve got to be ready to go,” said one senior White House official.
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The White House has already shed senior staff. Roughly 23 White House staffers have also resigned or been fired since January including high-profile departures such Trump’s first chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to lesser-known appointees such as Michael Short of the communications shop, Derek Harvey of the National Security Council, or former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh.
This constant departures and changes in leadership could make it difficult for the administration to woo Republicans or top policy experts for new openings, said one executive recruiter—a problem compounded by the fact that the administration is still trying to fill vacant political positions in both the West Wing and federal agencies.
So far, the Trump White House has nominated roughly 345 appointees for Senate-confirmed positions. By September 22 in past administrations, Obama had nominated 459 people while President George W. Bush had nominated 588 and Clinton 407, according to historical data kept by the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service.
“The question ultimately is whether people face a reputational risk by serving in this administration. Will it hurt people?” added the recruiter, who hires for trade associations, companies, and firms, looking for a D.C. presence.
But, this recruiter said, interest is always high in people coming out of the White House: “Our clients are always looking for people who have insights and perspectives from inside the administration, whether it is on tax reform of health care.”
White House officials are required by the Office of Government Ethics to let their bosses and the ethics officer from the White House counsel’s office know if they do any job searching, even if they’re just sending out resumes, said Don Fox, the former general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics. Then, the official also needs to recuse himself or herself from any White House business or policy that relates to their job search in any way.
“I can’t say this happens 100 percent of the time, but I worked with both the Bush 43 and Obama White House on this, and both administrations were very careful about it,” Fox said. “In terms of the public interest, you’re trying to preserve that by maintaining the objectivity of government officials.”
It’s not clear whether controversy over Trump’s policy positions will make it harder for people to find work. Former press secretary Sean Spicer has struggled to land a role as a paid network or cable news contributor because of concerns about his credibility.
And industries that have had tenuous relationships with the administration, so far, may be reluctant to hire well-known Trump appointees. Tech companies, for instance, have been among the more vocal critics of the administration’s travel ban and other immigration policies, an anathema to many progressive workers in Silicon Valley.
“Some people are a little nervous that corporations will hold their time in the Trump White House against them, particularly companies like Google or Uber or tech players,” said one GOP strategist, who has also been contacted by several White House staffers slyly on the hunt for new jobs.
This operative said that White House staffers will call or email him out of the blue to try to schedule a lunch, or ask him to submit their names for a job. “I want to say, ‘Are you going to be serving a side of resume with this lunch?” the strategist said.
One additional hiccup may be that there are fewer job openings in Washington right now for political and policy operatives because the usual job-shuffling following an election year didn’t happen to the same degree following the 2016 election, said another executive recruiter.
Usually, people leave D.C. government relations jobs or trade associations to take positions in the White House, but many people who might have gone into the administration under a different president instead “hunkered down” in 2017, the same recruiter added.
“It is a little early in the game to leave,” the recruiter went on. “One White House staffer said to me, ‘I’ve accomplished a lot, I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do.’ To myself, I was thinking: ‘But you’ve only been there since the spring.”