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The Ignoble Afterlife of the Trump Staffer

John Kelly is the latest former official to cash in on his experience working for a corrupt and immoral administration.

Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

Is there life after President Donald Trump? Former members of his administration are struggling to find out. The president is burning through subordinates at a far greater clip than any other recent predecessor, with eleven cabinet-level departures so far. In the White House alone, there have been three chiefs of staff, four national security advisors, and six communications directors just in the first two years. Trump has yet to even nominate a replacement for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis since he resigned in December.

Some of these officials have returned to old jobs in academia or the private sector, distancing themselves from the president without renouncing him in full. Others have gone all-in on the president’s agenda by either joining his re-election campaign or the constellation of super PACs surrounding it. A handful have become apostates from the MAGA faith by getting ignominiously fired or resigning on principle. And some have simply tried to cash in on the experience.

That revolving door between the federal government and private groups trying to curry favor with it is hardly new. But under Trump, it resembles something closer to a down escalator. Instead of obtaining plum positions in Fortune 500 companies or major think tanks, most Trumpworld alumni are working in far less illustrious jobs than their predecessors. Those jobs offer a telling window into the priorities and values of the people he’s hired—and how they’ll influence the country after his presidency eventually ends.

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump documented on Monday where more than three dozen top Trump officials have landed since leaving their government jobs. A common landing spot is the network of Trump-aligned and GOP-friendly political organizations focused on 2020. Katie Walsh, Trump’s first deputy chief of staff, rejoined the Republican National Committee after her 70-day tenure ended in 2017. Bill Shine, his most recent ex-communications director, decamped for a role in the Trump re-election campaign. Conservative media outlets have also scooped up figures like foreign policy adviser Sebastian Gorka and former ICE chief Thomas Homan.

A few of the administration’s most famous figures, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have kept relatively low profiles since Trump ousted them. Others returned to their old jobs. Dina Powell, a former deputy national security advisor, went back to Goldman Sachs after her White House tenure ended last spring. Mattis took up his former civilian gig at Stanford’s Hoover Institution earlier this year.

Some Trump officials, though, seem to be profiteering on their official policies. Ryan Zinke resigned as secretary of the Interior Department in December while facing multiple ethics investigations. Then U.S. Gold, a Nevada-based mining company, announced last month that it had hired Zinke as a consultant for a six-figure sum. It’s a perfect match: Zinke used his time as steward of the nation’s public lands to open them up to new levels of mineral and fossil-fuel extraction, while U.S. Gold largely operates on federal public lands. A Trump executive order bans former federal officials like Zinke from lobbying for their former agencies for five years. But he’ll still be in position to get rich on his own deregulatory actions.

Other instances are downright ghoulish. Last week, former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly joined the board of Caliburn International, which owns the only private contractor that operates detention shelters for unaccompanied migrant children along the southern border. Kelly is intimately familiar with the issue. Under his watch at DHS and as White House chief of staff, the Trump administration adopted a draconian approach to housing migrants, including a family-separation policy last summer that was scaled back after near-universal condemnation. In his new job, Kelly is now well-placed to profit from the widely criticized policies that he helped enact.

Like Zinke, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is barred from lobbying on federal environmental projects until after 2023. But that doesn’t stop him from working on state-level projects. Pruitt became famous for his extraordinary zeal in rolling back environmental regulations, as well as a series of questionable ethical decisions that eventually cost him his job last summer. He resurfaced last month as a coal lobbyist in Indiana, which is considering measures that would phase out one of the dirtiest energy sources statewide. Despite lobbying from Pruitt, the state chamber of commerce recently declined to endorse a bill aimed at saving the industry.

This isn’t a new problem, of course. Every administration deals with a revolving door of former officials who take up jobs in industries related to where they once worked in public service. In theory, working in a presidential administration can be a massive career boost. Veterans of the George W. Bush administration joined conservative think tanks and Fortune 500 boards. So did former Obama White House team members, whose alumni went to work for Uber, Facebook, and other controversial companies.

Trump staffers have found less lucrative jobs by comparison. White House press secretaries, for example, typically snag well-paid communications posts or high-profile cable news gigs. Sean Spicer, who became a household name for his surrealistic briefings, marketed himself as a potential talk-show host and now works as a correspondent for Extra, the tabloid TV news program. An exception that proves the rule is the Murdoch empire, where Trump’s name carries far less stigma and where a revolving door separates the White House from the Fox News Channel. Hope Hicks, a former White House advisor, now works as the communications chief for Fox.

This is not the kind of administration Trump promised to build. During his 2016 campaign, he fashioned himself as the ultimate outsider—someone whose wealth would insulate him from corrupt influences while he worked to “drain the swamp.” Every presidential candidate tells voters they’ll clean up Washington, but Trump’s message worked particularly well against Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and other establishment figures. There were clear signs that it was a grift all along, of course. But it was an effective one.

Trump’s own tangles with corruption are pretty familiar at this point. But they don’t tell the whole story. One of the clearest signs of what an administration represents is who serves in it, and one of its lasting legacies is what those staffers and officials do next. The current administration’s legacy is thus coming into view, as survivors of Trumpworld either keep fighting for him, embrace exile and ritual denunciations, or use their association with the president to line their own pockets.