In the final days before inauguration, Donald Trump’s top aides huddled in hushed meetings in New York City and a cookie-cutter federal building near the White House to struggle over a key unsettled question: Who exactly would have access to the new President once he moves into the White House?
The businessman turned politician spent weeks after the election playing host to a large and diverse set of visitors, from 1980s celebrities to Kanye West to corporate CEOs to politicians of all stripes. At the same time, he has maintained an open-door policy for top aides, resisting efforts by staff and even his wife to curtail phone calls at all hours.
More often than not, this time with Trump is more than just social. Unlike the man he replaces, Trump likes to think out loud and in company, and has been known for years to ask just about everyone he encounters for their advice, whether they be reporters seeking an interview or celebrities looking for a photo op. (On one recent call, he polled a Senator on the performance of his new staff.) Whereas President Obama would retire to the White House residence to read through stacks of briefing materials after his daughters went to bed, Trump has given word that he would rather not have to read any memo longer than a page if it can be helped.
Power in the White House is traditionally measured by title, with senior aides and the chief of staff filtering access to the
President. But the Trump White House is likely to be a more complex operation, given his habits. “What happens is Donald
Trump is the hub, everybody else is a spoke,” said one campaign veteran who has been trying to work through the issue. The most valuable staff in Trump’s orbit often get their clout through the boss’ comfort with their presence.
Among this group, there has developed a sort of inner circle to Trump’s inner circle, people whose jobs allow them to be outside the traditional political and policy chains of command. What unites them is their unfettered access, disdain for the
conventional way of doing things, and a fierce, almost filial, devotion to the boss. Consider this a guide to the five operatives who will always have the ear of President Trump. Hope Hicks is a former fashion model and PR maven for Ivanka Trump’s clothing and jewelry empire, who has for more than 18 months been the gatekeeper for the President’s day, especially with the press. The newly named assistant to the President and director of strategic communications has been an omnipresent force behind the new Commander in Chief ’s message-first transition, assisting in the drafting of tweets and statements that have sent markets moving and world leaders aflutter. Among the new hires, Hicks is particularly valued for her fearlessness in delivering unpleasant news to Trump when other aides are wary of being the messenger—most notably the existence of the Access Hollywood tape, which nearly upended his campaign.
Then there is Trump’s longtime bodyguard, Keith Schiller, who will be deputy assistant to the President and director of Oval Office operations. A former NYPD detective who has worked for Trump since 1999, rising to director of security, he plans to continue the unusual role he played during the campaign, providing security alongside the Secret Service chain of command. Schiller’s team is likely to staff public events and rallies held by Trump, searching for potential protesters and ejecting them. Schiller also objects on Trump’s behalf to security restrictions the team deems onerous. Dan Scavino is a Trump Organization lifer who started working for the new President as a teen-age golf caddy, rising to assistant to the President and director of social media. In addition to conducting the #TrumpTrain on Twitter and Facebook, Scavino took on such routine tasks during the campaign as being the chief Starburst pusher, stocking the campaign plane with the taffy candy before every trip. (Trump will now have a military crew to handle such details on Air Force One.)
John McEntee, a production assistant at Fox News, is going into the White House as Trump’s body man, charged with tending to his most routine needs during the day. A former quarterback at the University of Connecticut who scored some early fame by posting a YouTube video of trick football throws in 2011, he got the job by bombarding the campaign email list with his résumé. He was first an unpaid volunteer before being hired as Trump’s trip director. Finally there is George Gigicos, one of the few in Trump’s club with previous White House experience, having served as an advance man for President George W. Bush. He signed on to the Trump campaign when almost no one else in the Establishment would and became a central figure among the “original five” aides who traveled the country during the primaries with Trump. In the White House, Gigicos will be director of advance, the person responsible for planning his trips and the optics of the presidency.
All of them are expected to continue to spend their workdays close to Trump. “He doesn’t like being alone,” said one top aide, explaining that Trump often passes the time taking calls on his phone (which he has now traded in for a secure device) or watching cable news. “When he’s bored, he calls in Hope, Keith, Scavino, John or George to work on some new thing or to point out some news story he likes.”
Scavino describes the new President’s tight-knit crew as bonded by fire. “We’ve been through it all together. We’re like family,” he says, in reference to all the dark days of the campaign when Trump was beset by protests and negative stories. “We all have our lanes and one common goal, and that’s to look out for our boss and see him succeed.”
So far, Trump has signaled to top aides that he intends to keep an open-door policy for his senior team and inner circle. And as move-in day approached, those closest to him strategized on how to stay close even in off-hours. The aides have all prioritized their apartment search with proximity to the White House in mind, in one case a mere quarter-mile from the West Wing.
Some around Trump fear that the system will distract the new President or make it easier for him to work around the more deliberative process they are trying to erect. But there is little to be done. “Anybody who thinks that they are going to limit access to Donald Trump will not survive,” the campaign veteran said.
This is a President who won the office by promising dramatic change and used his unorthodox campaign style as a central selling point. With his wife Melania staying in New York City through the school year with their 10-year-old son, Trump will continue to buck convention. But he will rarely be alone. “We have his back,” says Scavino.