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What it’s like to apply for a job in Trump’s White House

President-elect Donald Trump with Robert Johnson, founder of the BET television network, for a meeting in Bedminster, N.J., last month.
Hilary Swift/The New York Times
President-elect Donald Trump with Robert Johnson, founder of the BET television network, for a meeting in Bedminster, N.J., last month.

WASHINGTON — When former governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia stepped off the elevator on the 26th floor of Trump Tower last week for his interview with Donald Trump, he expected a grilling by the president-elect and a phalanx of associates, something along the lines of the confrontational boardroom scenes at the sleek conference table in the television show “The Apprentice.”

What he found instead was Trump, calm and solicitous behind a desk cluttered with papers and periodicals, in a large corner office with a hodgepodge of memorabilia and décor that appeared little changed from the 1980s. Nick Ayers, an aide to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Stephen K. Bannon, who will serve as Trump’s chief strategist, listened from the sidelines. Trump, who offered Perdue a seat across from his desk, was in charge.

“He was approaching this from a deal standpoint, and he wanted to know if he was on the right track,” said Perdue, who is being considered for secretary of agriculture and wore a tie adorned with tractors to the meeting. “He believes that we in the United States have been sort of patsies over the years in the way we’ve dealt with our foreign competitors and international trade — and I agree with him — and he wanted to know what I would do about it.”

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For more than a decade, millions of Americans tuned in to watch Trump interrogate prospective employees on “The Apprentice” with a mix of arrogance and disdain. But in private over the past few weeks, a less theatrical spinoff of the spectacle has unfolded in Trump’s office in Manhattan, and occasionally at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., or at Mar-a-Lago, his getaway in Palm Beach, Fla.

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Trump’s interview style in the real world is direct but conversational, according to people who have sat opposite him. He did not take notes or appear to refer to a set list of questions, but he did have dossiers on his visitors and often displayed intricate knowledge of their backgrounds and experience. He rarely drank or ate. He kept his suit jacket on. In New York, he liked to show off the sweeping views of Central Park visible over his shoulder.

Job seekers, who must parade before the media in the marble and bronze lobby of Trump Tower — “It was almost like walking the red carpet in Hollywood,” said Representative Lou Barletta, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has offered himself up as a secretary of transportation or labor — said that the president-elect often asked open-ended questions and had little patience for meandering answers.

“If you filibuster, he’ll cut you off,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who was initially in the running to be Trump’s secretary of state but has since said he is not interested in a Cabinet post. “He wants to know what you can do for him.’’

Gingrich said Trump’s approach to putting together his administration was the same one he has used with his multibillion-dollar business.

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“He’s used to defining jobs, measuring capability, and making a judgment: ‘Do I think you can run my golf course? Do I think you can run my hotel? Do I want your restaurant in my building?’” Gingrich said.

Trump has been more hands-on in the interviews than his predecessors were. George W. Bush rarely spoke in person to more than one finalist for each Cabinet post, said Clay Johnson III, who directed his transition effort in 2000. President Obama also interviewed a single finalist for each post in most cases, usually in a one-on-one discussion meant to confirm an already well-established conclusion that the candidate would be right for the job, said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior transition official in 2008.

Members of Congress, generals, business executives, and others mingle outside his office, waiting for an audience. Barletta waited more than 45 minutes for his meeting, passing the time chatting with his House colleague Michael McCaul of Texas, who was waiting for his turn to audition for secretary of homeland security.

“It was like a green room, a waiting room of people you know or you know of, all waiting their turn,” said Robert L. Johnson, the founder of the television network BET, who visited Trump at Bedminster to discuss ways the incoming president could reach out to African-Americans.

As Johnson was coming in, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York whom Trump is considering for secretary of state, was going out.

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Trump wants a gut sense for a potential hire, people close to him said, prizing personal chemistry and an entrepreneurial spirit. But he also leans on the judgment of trusted advisers — particularly Pence and his elder daughter, Ivanka Trump — when assessing a candidate.

Trump, who prizes loyalty, also wanted to know precisely what the job seekers did to propel him into the White House.

“He asked about what I had done to help in Georgia,” said Perdue, who told the president-elect that he and his cousin, Senator David Perdue, had repeatedly reassured campaign officials about Trump’s prospects there and encouraged them to focus their energies elsewhere.

Scott Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who met with Trump last month about becoming his secretary of veterans affairs, said Trump asked how he could help him deliver on his campaign pledges and how to ensure a “good value” for veterans receiving services from the agency or private contractors.

“He made it clear that he’s a businessman and he’s going to delegate to people like me, potentially, and others,” Brown said. “He’s going to say, ‘Do your job, and do it well, and otherwise — you’re fired.’”