WASHINGTON — Listing a White House gig on your resume used to be considered a sparkling credential, reflecting a stint at the apex of the country’s political power.
But as with so many other things about Donald Trump’s unconventional presidency, former staffers in a White House plagued by constant intrigue and controversy are finding their association with this president a bit more complicated for post-administration prospects.
That’s left current and former staffers — and there are a lot of them — stuck with the advice no job-seeker wants: Adjust your expectations.
The big corporations where jobs come with mid-six-figure salaries have largely avoided the top tier of former Trump staffers. One company that picked a former top Trump aide to be its chief executive tried to paper over the association, leaving the word “Trump” off the press release when announcing the hire.
“The opposition to Donald Trump runs so deep that many of the people who think White House experience is highly valuable, whether it was [under George W.] Bush or [Bill] Clinton, now tuck in their tails and are afraid of catching criticism for hiring anyone from the Trump White House,” said Ari Fleischer, who was the Bush administration’s top spokesman from 2001 to 2003. “It’s akin to a mob mentality that you have to be a bit brave to break from.”
The Trump White House has seen 49 percent turnover among top staff, according to the Brookings Institution. The administration also had the highest first year turnover among key staff for any president since the Washington-based think tank began collecting data in 1981.
Current and former staffers say there’s been a similar churn at the middle levels, leaving scores of former White House employees looking for positions. Some wonder if White House experience is more of a ball and chain than a springboard.
“During my time there I was thinking: ‘Is this experience going to hurt me or help me?’ ” said one former aide who stayed about a year and was happy to land a post-White House job at a big company. “He is a polarizing president. Some people love what he says and some people hate it.”
Others at the White House are similarly weighing the pros and cons of their Trump connection, said the person, who wasn’t authorized by the new employer to speak publicly. “If they don’t, they are kind of stupid,” the person said.
One trend the person noticed: “The people who have left on their own terms are happy with where they ended up. The people who were asked to leave, I’m not so sure about.”
Some of the bigger names have landed fine. Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus returned to his previous law firm, though with a better title. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer has a lucrative book deal and private clients. And reality TV star Omarosa Manigault-Newman is, well, still a reality TV star after stepping down from her stint as an assistant to the president.
But further down in the trenches, two others still working for the administration — and one other who has departed and is still looking — said they’re all worried about how Trump will be perceived by employers on their resumes.
“Not everyone can get a gig at Fox News,” bemoaned a current administration employee considering grim job prospects for jobs elsewhere. “A lot of us are going back home.”
Part of the problem, especially for the White House staffers who came from Trump’s ragtag campaign, is they don’t necessarily know how Washington works.
“There are not as many people who have the experience downtown,” said a Republican with ties to Trump who runs a lobbying firm.
The person has talked to some West Wing aides looking to jump ship and hasn’t been all that impressed. “When they talk about drafts, sometimes there’s a weak draft,” the lobbyist said. “This is a middle-of-the-road draft.”
Academics are also puzzling over where people who are leaving the administration wind up.
“In looking at the Trump administration, the thing that’s unusual is there are more people where their next job is unknown,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied West Wing staff turnover going back to the Reagan administration. “I don’t think you’d keep it super secret if you had a good job.”
She’s found a large number of staff members who simply returned to their previous jobs, which isn’t the transformative experience one expects from a stint at the West Wing. The group includes Michael Dubke, who briefly served as Trump’s communications director and then returned to his original firm. Or Paul Winfree who worked at the Heritage Foundation before and after his brief White House stint.
“It’s not like people are going on to be head of government affairs at Ford [Motor Company],” she said. “You’re not seeing ‘home run’ jobs.”
Companies who do hire from the Trump administration don’t necessarily tout the Trump connection. When George Sifakis, a former assistant to the president and director of the office of public liaison, was hired to be the chief executive officer of Ideagen Global, a Washington-based company founded by his wife that hosts conferences, the press release trumpeting the move didn’t include the word “Trump.”
The release does mention by name his tenure working for Bush. And there’s a quote from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but the reader must make a few leaps to determine the name of his last boss. Sifakis didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and neither did a spokesperson for the firm.
Another factor complicating life for some hoping to leave the administration is the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. It’s a headache for employers who don’t want to deal with the possibility that a new employee will end up taking the stand.
“It’s not their fault,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who didn’t work for the Trump campaign or White House. “It’s the reality that many of them are facing after leaving the administration.”
Those who have found jobs lean into their previous government experience or previous connections for their next move.
“I’m a policy person first and foremost,” explained George Banks, who has worked for the State Department and the CIA during other administrations. After about a year in the Trump White House he landed a position as the executive vice president at the American Council for Capital Formation, a pro-business nonprofit where he had previously worked. “I have bipartisan credentials.”
There is a bit of a brighter path for stars — those who can sell their insights on the president’s decision-making process.
“This is an unconventional administration,” said Spicer, the former spokesman who became so famous for his combative press briefings that he’s a bit of a celebrity now in his own right. “There is clearly a heightened interest from the business community for anyone who has any insight into the Trump administration.”
Spicer is giving paid speeches, writing a book, and has some private consulting clients.
But this path, too, is fraught. The news that Trump fixer Michael Cohen sold his relationship with Trump to AT&T Inc. and Novartis AG created a massive embarrassment for both companies, and a top staffer at AT&T was pushed to retire for his role in allowing the arrangement.
The one staffer who seems to have lots of options is Gary Cohn, who left his perch as the president of Goldman Sachs to be the director of Trump’s National Economic Council, but exited the administration in April. His name has been floated for some big jobs, including the chairman of Citigroup.
In a recent interview on
CNBC, he said he’s considering joining corporate boards, working with a young company, or returning to investing.
“Or, guess what,’ said Cohn. “I can do nothing.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.