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When Axios reported last month on President Trump’s light daily schedule — cushioned by plenty of leisurely “executive time” — one particular Tuesday stood out.
Among a trio of meetings there was, as to be expected, one with White House chief of staff John Kelly and another with H.R. McMaster, the top national security official in the country.
And then, just before Trump called it a day, there was a half-hour with Johnny DeStefano.
“Anyone else would be walking around with a head like a zeppelin after seeing that,” one former coworker said after spotting DeStefano’s name in the story. “But Johnny’s Johnny.”
DeStefano always thrives, in another friend’s estimation, by gravitating toward “the unmanageable and unwinnable” — and managing to win. That helps explain his rising status in a Trump White House dominated by loud conflict. DeStefano outlasted the Republican National Committee veterans who brought him into the fold, and survived a feud with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His title, director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, undersells his widening influence. Reports in recent weeks have him assuming at least temporary leadership of three other departments: Intergovernmental Affairs, Public Liaison, and Political Affairs.
The White House has not announced the moves publicly, but administration officials acknowledge DeStefano has taken on a larger role in executing the political agenda. In a midterm year that could turn on Trump’s unpredictable judgment — the president’s involvement in last year’s Senate race in Alabama and his intention to play favorites in GOP primaries fray the nerves of vulnerable Republicans — DeStefano stands as a quiet center of power.
“You’re not going to get him to talk for this story,” one longtime colleague, who is familiar with the inner workings of the White House and national party, accurately predicted to BuzzFeed News. “He knows that his utility is that he’s going to be trusted.”
DeStefano, who indeed declined interview requests, largely keeps the full scope of his duties a mystery to those on the outside. Originally, Reince Priebus, the former RNC chair and Trump’s first chief of staff, saw in DeStefano a steady establishment hand who, as personnel director, could help hire the right government for an anti-establishment president.
His long history of going by “Johnny” — friends text DeStefano mockingly whenever they see him identified as “John” — and his attention to appearance complement a reality TV celebrity-turned-president who favors aides who look and sound the part. His friends say this also endeared him to his old boss, former House Speaker John Boehner. “Johnny always looks great, always has a tie on,” said Deborah Pryce, a former Ohio lawmaker. “He just kind of had the Boehner Way.”
But DeStefano knows he’s not the star of the show. On that score, interviews with more than a dozen friends and coworkers were an exercise in déjà vu.
“He’s no-drama,” said Guy Harrison, who worked with DeStefano at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “There are bedwetters and drama queens in politics. Being the person who is calm in the face of chaos always helps.”
“Remember the guy in Entourage, Johnny Drama? This is like Johnny No Drama,” offered Kevin Madden, a fellow Boehner alum.
“He doesn’t get involved in a lot of drama,” observed a third Republican.
DeStefano has earned a reputation for tackling tricky jobs in politics. When Pryce was facing a brutal reelection race in 2006, GOP leaders were nervous her team lacked the high-end political chops to survive a Democratic wave. DeStefano, who served as coalitions director for the Pryce-led House Republican Conference, was called in as campaign manager. Pryce won by 1,062 votes.
“They sent him here to get things organized. And that’s a difficult thing to do in Columbus, where you have all these all these super-geniuses,” said Matt Borges, a longtime Republican strategist in Ohio. “But Johnny did it, and he won.”
The victory impressed Boehner. Then the House minority leader, the Ohioan brought DeStefano into his inner circle. For the next six years, DeStefano held a variety of key jobs at the Capitol and in the wider political network of Boehner Land. Later, in the speaker’s office, he handled member services. Often that meant DeStefano was the bearer of bad news, like when a lawmaker didn’t get a preferred committee assignment or some other plum from Boehner.
“It’s really a tough job, because whether you’re Nancy Pelosi as speaker or Paul Ryan as speaker or John Boehner as speaker, you’re chief of the complaints office,” said Pat Tiberi, a recently retired congressman from Ohio who bonded with DeStefano. “Johnny was a fixer. He tried to fix problems and anticipate problems.”
Next, DeStefano was picked to run Data Trust — an organization that crunches voter data for the RNC — after the disastrous 2012 election that laid bare Republican deficiencies in data. DeStefano steered improvements that delivered better results in 2014 and 2016, during Priebus’s tenure running the party.
And from there it was on to the Trump White House. Many of DeStefano’s friends confess they were surprised the job was offered to and accepted by a veteran of Boehner Land. The former speaker was a symbol of the swamp Trump promised to drain, and he was hardly shy in his criticism of the billionaire, whom he called “barely a Republican.”
DeStefano, said one old friend, “was the quintessential guy who was telling everyone, ‘We’ve got to have good people there’ — justifying it.”
Others believe the establishment vs. anti-establishment dynamic is overblown.
“Is he establishment? Yes. But he’s not establishment to the degree that someone who was a senior George W. Bush White House staffer or someone who had worked for Bush family in multiple iterations,” Brett Loper, a former top Boehner aide, said of DeStefano. “He’s not a disciple of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. He grew up through the ranks of the party, not the policy side of the party.”
DeStefano overcame some bumps in his first year. Tillerson, according to a report in Politico, lashed out at him in a meeting for not filling State Department positions quickly enough. (A spokesperson for Tillerson declined to respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.)
“Even when Johnny was being criticized for how things were being handled, he never went public to defend himself,” one DeStefano ally said. “He absorbed the bullets.
“What he learned was to always put the boss first.”
Tarini Parti contributed reporting.