It’s time for Episode 83 of the Nerdcast, POLITICO’s podcast on the White House and politics. Tune in each week to geek out with us as we dive deep into the political landscape and the latest numbers that matter.
On the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s upset victory, the president commemorated the occasion, as he likes to do, with a tweet.
His 140-character message included a photo of him, sitting at his desk on Air Force One, surrounded by five people, all giving the thumbs-up sign. Four of them are household names in political circles: Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner and Dan Scavino. But the fifth, a young man standing at the far left of the photo with neatly parted brown hair and a wide smile, was something of a mystery, even to reporters who stalk the corridors of the White House daily. He hadn’t been seen spouting talking points on Fox News or dutifully arrayed in the background of news conferences or Cabinet meetings. In fact, he had such poor name recognition that once CNN mistakenly identified him as the wrong White House official in an articleabout Trump’s first 10 months in office.
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But he had something important in common with the other four—he was an “original,” one of the last few members of Trump’s long-shot campaign still working for Trump. In a White House that has churned through staffers like a wood chipper, these five Trump aides had survived two-and-a-half years of tumult and crisis. The mystery man on the left, so little known that some photo captions didn’t even bother to identify him, had pulled off the most remarkable feat of all—he had done it while remaining almost completely anonymous.
But inside the West Wing, everyone knows Johnny.
At age 27, John McEntee, a former University of Connecticut quarterback and star of a viral YouTube trick-throw video, former low-level Fox News staffer and campaign official, now makes $115,000 a year as Trump’s personal aide and body man. How he rose to this level of prominence is in some respects the quintessential tale of success within Trump’s organization, where loyalty and looks often matter more than résumé. Athletically handsome and a sharp dresser—one former campaign official called him “so pretty”—McEntee arrived at Trump’s doorstep in August 2015 with no more qualifications than his determination to make the boss happy.
He’s a teetotaling former altar boy, and he can talk confidently about sports with a boss who, it’s fair to say, has a few opinions on the subject.Outside of Hicks and Scavino, McEntee is one of the only White House employees whose contact with the president spans his political and personal lives. But he has a conspicuously low profile—McEntee’s a “lock box,” in the words of his father and one White House aide, who won’t even dish to his own family. “He literally loves the president. Not even to me, he would never say anything negative, not in a million years,” his father, John, says. “He loves the president and that family. Jared and Ivanka, too.”
McEntee is the one who greets the president in the morning inside the White House residence and the one who walks the president back upstairs at night. He’s been by Trump’s side, but not too close—McEntee’s father says he’s seen him duck out of live camera shots to avoid being seen—from campaign rallies in Alabama and Las Vegas to those early hectic days inside the Oval Office to foreign trips with the president to Europe and Asia. He sits outside of the Oval Office, partly as gatekeeper and partly to maintain proximity to his boss. He’s one of the few White House staffers who gets his calls answered on the first ring. When he asks other aides for a briefing book or draft of an executive order, people know that it’s a request coming directly from the president.
He may be operating in obscurity now, but body men for prominent politicians (especially presidents) have achieved big things after they stopped carrying someone else’s briefcase. Reggie Love, President Barack Obama’s aide, wrote a book about his experience. Doug Band parlayed his close relationship with Bill Clinton into a top post at the Clinton Foundation and then an even more lucrative position running the consulting firm Teneo.
In recent weeks, McEntee’s clout in the Trump orbit has grown following the departure of Keith Schiller, Trump’s longtime security guard and trusted confidant. “With Keith’s departure, Johnny is clearly playing a larger role. He is someone who has earned the trust of the president and is a top-notch professional,” said Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary.
It helps that McEntee is also an affable presence in the White House for Trump and staffers alike. In quieter moments between events or on walks from the Oval Office to the Rose Garden, McEntee and the president will make small talk about football, or McEntee’s family who live in Orange County, California. And as the trick shot video shows, McEntee has a knack for performing for an audience. On Air Force One, he has perfected a party trick to keep staffers amused on long flights.
For months, he has played a practical joke on unwitting staffers by handing them a note, “signed” by Trump, whose signature McEntee has perfected. The note usually gives the staffer a hard time about something, or an “atta-boy” for all of the work they are doing. Only later does McEntee reveal that he wrote it, as other staffers usually start laughing. Many hang on to the notes as keepsakes. “For context, it’s about having fun,” one former White House staffer hastened to explain. “Not trying to undermine the U.S. government.”
McEntee declined to be interviewed for this article. After all, in this White House, nothing is more damaging to your long-term career prospects than appearing too high profile or outshining the president. But McEntee sometimes finds the spotlight anyway. During the president’s May trip through Saudi Arabia, Twitter accounts bubbled with interest in Ivanka Trump, who earned a hashtag in Arabic, and a young man with brown hair and a red tie from the president’s entourage. “Just give me the man in the red tie and throw me in the sea,” one Saudi woman tweeted breathlessly. Another woman asked his name, but no one on Twitter could provide it.
In June of 2015, McEntee was working as a production assistant at Fox News—he was mostly involved with the channel’s social media accounts—when he watched on TV as Donald Trump descended an elevator in Trump Tower and famously announced his candidacy for president. McEntee would later tell a Trump campaign staffer that he had never heard a politician “be so straightforward or speak so honestly about the country’s problems.” Eager to join the campaign, he searched the Internet and found its general mailbox. When no one replied to a series of emails, he sent one more, suggesting the campaign clearly needed someone to answer random emails—him. The pitch worked and he began as a volunteer in August 2015, but was quickly hired as a full-time employee.
McEntee was a jovial presence in the Trump campaign office at Trump Tower. He could be found scooting around on a hoverboard, and the former college athlete, who walked on to the UConn football team and became its starting quarterback, was once challenged to do 100 pushups in 90 seconds—he did. But he was also a tireless worker, often slogging deep into the night and sleeping at Trump Tower. Whether it was low-level gopher tasks like stapling documents or more substantive work like preparing a memo ahead of the primary’s first debate, campaign staff recalled McEntee as the consummate team player. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, had a sign on his desk emblazoned with the motto of the New England Patriots’ taciturn coach Bill Belichick: “Do Your Job.”
“Johnny got it,” Lewandowski said. “Whatever we needed, it didn’t matter: He was on it.”
McEntee was one of the first 10 or 15 staffers in the New York office and soon he was traveling with the future president. Early on, he made rental car arrangements and when Trump didn’t like the food at a fundraiser, he made sure to have Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s for his boss afterward on the campaign plane. When McEntee’s father attended a rally in Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada primary, Trump raved to him about the great job his son was doing. McEntee also recommended his cousin, Zac, a recent graduate with an accounting degreefrom UConn who had played on the tennis team, for a job in the campaign’s accounting department. Zac McEntee, 24, later met Steven Mnuchin and now works as the Treasury secretary’s body man, an improbable all-in-the-family service to the Trump administration and one of the president’s favorite Cabinet secretaries.
Despite the ease with which McEntee has adapted to political life, he doesn’t come from a political family. His fathersays he has been a reliable Republican voter for decades going back to Ronald Reagan, but was never active in campaigns or funding them. The family was more focused on religion; they are devout Roman Catholics and McEntee was an altar boy for years in Brea, California, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles, where he grew up. “We thought he missed his calling as a priest,” his dad said. “We were shocked when he told us he wanted to go into politics.”
Still, there were other aspects of his upbringing that prepared McEntee well for his new role. His father runs TEI Entertainment, a successful entertainment agency with offices in California and Las Vegas that books celebrities for corporate events and private parties. The Eagles, Aerosmith, the rapper Flo Rida and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana have been among his clients. “Johnny’s been around celebrities, famous people, his whole life,” his father said. “That’s made the job easier for him.”
McEntee was a star quarterback at Servite High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Anaheim. In a preview of what would be his ability to keep proprietary information, he used to refuse to share the team’s trick plays with his dad. He headed east for college to the University of Connecticut, where he walked on to the football team and eventually claimed the starting job for a season, leading the team to a 5-7 record. He racked up over 2,200 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his career. (McEntee was eventually offered a scholarship, but declined, knowing his dad could afford to pay his tuition.) McEntee may have been the designated driver on nights out, but his teammates and friends describe him as the epitome of California cool. “He was all personality and is all personality,” said Dave Teggart, a teammate at Connecticut. “In the grind of a season, Johnny Mac was the guy to bring the comic relief, but he was always genuine, too. He was the perfect locker-room guy.”
That was never more evident than during the winter of 2011, when a blizzard canceled classes in Storrs. With an afternoon to kill, McEntee had an idea. A player on the powerhouse women’s basketball team had recently filmed a trick-shot video and he wanted to shoot a rebuttal. He and a few buddies spent a day and a half filming exotic throws: a blindfolded McEntee threw darts to receivers; he climbed the scaffolding of the practice facility and threw the ball 50 yards into a garbage can; in the basketball arena, he tossed the ball through the hoop from the nosebleed seats; he knocked a water bottle off Teggart’s head from 40 yards away. “No one else volunteered,” Teggart said, adding that most of the shots were filmed in just a few takes.
The video, posted to YouTube, went viral immediately. McEntee appeared on a segment on CNN with Jeannie Moos and UConn’s sports information director at the time, Mike Enright, recalled getting media requests from as far as away as England. A year after the video was posted, McEntee’s father met Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, at a fundraiser. Rodgers asked if he was related to the Johnny McEntee, the trick-shot quarterback. Today, the video has more than 7 million views.
McEntee graduated with a communications degree and spent the next summer working out with a coach in San Diego, but didn’t catch on with any NFL teams. He flirted with joining the military, even going so far as to bring a few brochures home to his family. “We were freaked out,” his father said. “We were relieved when he went to New York and started working for Fox.” Added Teggart: “Joining the campaign, I think that was his way of serving, of having a job that meant something.”
Over the course of the campaign and in the White House, McEntee was mentored by Schiller, who began working full-time as Trump director of security in 2004.
On the campaign trail, it was Schiller who taught McEntee to understand the complexities of Trump’s life and anticipate his needs, said one former campaign and transition official. That ranged from ensuring Trump’s safety to making sure he had a black sharpie in hand to sign autographs at rallies or dinners outside the White House bubble. It meant learning which TV channels Trump preferred to watch during different times of the day, or how to deliver the briefing book or his favorite newspapers to the residence in the morning.
“Your son is too good to be true,” Schiller once told McEntee’s father. Even after Schiller left the White House, he still had high praise for McEntee, his protégé. “Everyone loves him and he is a good young man,” Schiller said.
But with Schiller gone as part of the shakeup prompted by John Kelly’s arrival as chief of staff, it is now McEntee who travels with Trump when he goes to dinner at the Trump International Hotel or hits the links at one of his golf clubs. Just last week, McEntee spent Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago with Trump and his family, working behind the scenes. The rigors of the job—the travel, long hours and few days off—have kept McEntee from having much of a personal life in Washington. Friends say he isn’t dating anyone right now, and many nights he grabs Shake Shack for dinner because it’s close to his apartment. One of his big sources of entertainment comes from reading and selecting action movies like “Armageddon”to watch on Air Force One trips, White House aides said.
The itinerant lifestyle, though, is one a young former college athlete is equipped to handle. Reggie Love, who served as Obama’s body man after playing football and basketball at Duke, suggested that the schedule he kept with Obama was reminiscent of the days in college he spent training, going to class, practicing, studying and traveling. And as a quarterback, Love said, McEntee is especially well-suited for the job, having directed a team and a huddle. “He’s in charge of managing relationships and positions and clearly communicating and articulating and motivating a vision that looks and sounds like what your boss is after,” Love said. “On a football team, you understand that you represent a brand and a team, that you’re part of something larger than yourself.”
For years, McEntee’s father has thought his son would like to open his own business one day, but he is now so devoted to his boss that he wouldn’t be surprised if he follows him back to the Trump Organization, whether it’s in three or seven years. As for the perpetual storms of controversy that swirl around the White House, McEntee’s father said that his son dismisses all of it. “I’ll ask him about something I read and he says, ‘Why would they write that?’” the elder McEntee said. “He just wants to help make America great again.”
Recently, McEntee’s father asked his son if he had ever talked to Trump about his famous trick shot video, and he was surprised to learn that his son hadn’t. “I thought for sure, because it was so cool, they would have,” he said. “But he never brought it up. That’s Johnny.”
The revelation that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) secretly settled a sexual harassment claim using his office funds obscured a disturbing fact: The House appears to have no clear rules on whether Conyers’ colleagues can do the same thing.
Conyers in 2015 made a roughly $27,000 severance payment to a former aide who accused him of harassment using his taxpayer-funded office account. But even though the House ethics manual says that employees should be paid for having “regularly performed official duties” — in other words, showing up and doing work, a guideline that the severance payment to Conyers’ former aide didn’t meet — the settlement deal was still allowed to go forward.
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Now Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a vocal advocate for reform of Capitol Hill’s secretive system for handling workplace harassment, is calling out the lack of policing of the secret one-off settlements. She wants the House ethics committee to state definitively whether the chamber will allow more Conyers-style settlements.
The ethics panel “currently has no clear position on whether these payments are indeed impermissible,” Speier told the committee’s leaders in a Thursday letter, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.
Allowing lawmakers use their office’s budgets “to avoid public disclosure of wrongdoing only serves to enable the evasion of accountability,” Speier wrote, adding that she knows of one member who used the Conyers-style maneuver to settle a misconduct case earlier this year.
“The American people deserve to know whether their tax dollars are being used in this manner.”
The question of whether House members can settle harassment claims with their budgets — also known as members’ representational allowances, or MRAs — is at the heart of an ongoing ethics committee review of severance payments Rep. Mark Meadows (R-S.C.) made to a former chief of staff who was accused of sexual harassment by several female aides in the office.
One senior Democratic aide familiar with the issue said that before the Meadows probe, the ethics committee “was much clearer about the use of the MRA for this purpose.”
But the ethics panel’s “advice has been inconsistent and unhelpful” in the 15 months since, the aide added. “I don’t think that they expected this level of scrutiny around these particular settlements.”
Another Democratic aide sounded a similar note: “The lack of standardized guidance on this is problematic.”
Conyers himself is also the subject of another ethics panel review on the severance question stemming from his payments to a former chief of staff after she left his office following a guilty plea to a misdemeanor.
The House Administration Committee is holding a hearing Thursday on workplace misconduct settlements in Congress. Some of those are paid using a taxpayer-funded account maintained by the congressional Office of Compliance, while others come out of members’ budgets. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) settled a hostile work environment claim unrelated to sexual harassment in 2015 using operating funds from the House Natural Resources Committee, on which he is the top Democrat.
If the compliance office’s fund is used to pay a harassment claim, the administration panel’s GOP chairman and top Democrat have to sign off on it.
But the top Democrat on that committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Brady, said Thursday that no such approval requirement exists for harassment settlements paid from lawmakers’ office budgets. If that happened, Brady said in an interview, “we’d probably never know about it.”
Former Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chaired the administration panel from 2012 until 2016, said in an interview that “I don’t remember” being involved in any talks about resolving misconduct claims using lawmakers’ office budgets.
“I’m astonished to see that a member would use the MRA to pay off a sexual harassment case,” Miller said in an interview. “I don’t believe that’s why the money was appropriated.”
Grijalva said he worked with the House employment counsel’s office, which represents the interests of members in misconduct disputes, on the settlement agreement with his former aide. That employee reportedly cited Grijalva’s alleged alcohol use as creating a hostile work environment, charges that he denies.
“In this instance I felt that I was taking advice from House counsel, and that that advice was the best advice I could get,” Grijalva said in an interview. “And I relied on it.”
Speier, in an interview, slammed the employment counsel’s office as “biased and member-centered and victim-blaming. That whole function needs to change dramatically.”
The employment counsel’s office referred questions on the issue to the administration committee. The ethics committee declined to comment for this story.
That committee’s handbook for members allows lump sum payments to House employees, but specifies that recipients of the payments must “perform official duties commensurate with the compensation received” in compliance with chamber rules.
The chamber’s ethics manual uses similar phrasing, stating: “The underlying standard for the receipt of compensation by an employee of the House is that the employee has regularly performed official duties commensurate with the compensation received.”
A spokeswoman for the administration committee, asked if the panel has ever taken a closer look at the propriety of using office budgets to pay harassment settlements, said that any “misuse of official resources” would fall under the ethics panel’s purview. But the broader issue of settlements is part of the committee’s ongoing review of congressional workplace culture, the spokeswoman said.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), an administration committee member working with Speier on broader harassment reforms, said that lawmakers are trying to make their own internal misconduct system more transparent. But they want to avoid getting embroiled in specific “ongoing disputes with members and candidates, because then everybody kind of goes to their corners and you lose that watershed moment.”
Brady predicted that part of the House’s internal house cleaning on harassment would involve coming up with clearer guidance on the method Conyers and Grijalva used to secretly settle their claims. The administration committee is looking at adding language to its handbook and other guidance clarifying the issue, Brady said.
And asked why the ethics committee has not issued formal guidance, he quipped: “I think they’re going to now.”
Johnson wants to use the money to increase the proposed deduction for companies classified as pass-through businesses.
“It’s an elegant solution. I like it,” he said.
Johnson wants to increase the deduction for pass-through businesses to 25 percent, which he says would create an effective tax rate of about 28 percent.
“The best way to address the deficit is have pro-growth tax reform and that means keeping C corps” on par with pass-through businesses, he said.
Right now it looks like appeasing Johnson — rather than giving in to the demands from Corker and Flake — is the solution that would be more popular with the rest of the GOP caucus.
The problem McConnell faces in bringing aboard Corker and Flake, who are both retiring at the end of this Congress, is that Senate tax writers need to figure out precisely how to slim down the tax package by $350 billion.
Other GOP senators, however, may prefer setting the corporate tax rate a few percentage points higher than the 20-percent rate preferred by President Trump.
Republicans control 52 seats and can afford only two defections on the legislation. Vice President Pence would break a 50-50 tie.
McConnell adjourned the Senate at 9:15 p.m. Thursday to give tax writers time to work to come up with a potential compromise.
The Senate will reconvene at 10 a.m. Friday and hold its next round of votes at 11 a.m.
McConnell told reporters earlier in the week that finding a way to get 50 votes for the tax package is like trying to solve a “Rubik’s cube,” and his words proved prophetic.
Corker, Flake and Johnson surprised Senate leaders on the floor Thursday evening by threatening to vote for what most lawmakers thought was a routine motion to send the tax bill back to the Senate Finance Committee.
McConnell stood in the well of the Senate, his arms crossed, growing red in the face, while Corker, Flake and Johnson refused to vote to defeat the motion, which all members of the Democratic caucus backed.
McConnell, Cornyn and the rest of the leadership team scrambled to appease Corker and Flake by promising to lop $350 billion to $400 billion off the tax package.
Corker and Flake dug in their heels after the parliamentarian ruled that their proposal to set a trigger to roll back tax relief in case it failed to spur big economic growth ran afoul of the Senate rules.
So GOP leaders agreed to phase out a big chunk of the tax package after six or seven years.
“It’s automatically going to kick in, period. So it’s much more secure,” Corker said after the floor showdown.
It was a huge concession and left the leadership fuming as they walked off the Senate floor.
“It doesn’t look like the trigger is going to work, according to the parliamentarian, so we have an alternative, frankly, tax increase we don’t want to do to try to address Sen. Corker’s concerns,” Cornyn told reporters.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement Thursday night slamming “San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens” after a jury acquitted a man accused in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on a pier in the city.
Steinle, 32, was walking with her father on a San Francisco pier she was shot in the back by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a homeless, undocumented immigrant who was wanted for his sixth deportation at the time. Despite a federal immigration request for his detention, Zarate had been released from jail by the San Francisco sheriff’s department before the shooting.
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“When jurisdictions choose to return criminal aliens to the streets rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities, they put the public’s safety at risk,” the statement from Sessions reads.
Zarate’s attorneys argued that after he found the gun at the San Francisco waterfront, a shot accidentally deflected off the ground, hitting Steinle in what amounted to a tragic accident. Prosecutors argued that Zarate intentionally shot Steinle. Zarate was convicted on a charge of being a felon in possession of a gun.
Following Steinle’s murder, San Francisco became a flashpoint in a national debate over immigration and so-called “sanctuary cities.” President Donald Trump invoked the case repeatedly during his 2016 campaign as part of his rhetoric against illegal immigration.
The decision to release Zarate “led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle,” Sessions’ statement continues.
“While the State of California sought a murder charge for the man who caused Ms. Steinle’s death — a man who would not have been on the streets of San Francisco if they city simply honored an ICE detainer — the people ultimately convicted him of felon in possession of a firearm.
“The Department of Justice will continue to ensure that all jurisdictions place the safety and security of their communities above the convenience of criminal aliens. I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers.”