In late October 2020, Donald Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was attending the confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett when his cellphone rang. He answered with a whisper and walked out to the hallway to take the call. What was so urgent as to pull the chief of staff out of a Supreme Court confirmation hearing just two weeks before a presidential election?
On the line was Andrew Hughes, the top staffer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Meadows had asked him to call because it had been brought to Meadows's attention that a young assistant at HUD had been caught consorting with the enemy.
She had liked an Instagram post from the pop star Taylor Swift.
The first photo in the post was of Swift with the word VOTE superimposed on it in large blue letters. But a swipe revealed a second photo, of Swift carrying a tray of cookies emblazoned with the Biden-Harris campaign logo. "We really can't have our people liking posts promoting Joe Biden," Meadows told Hughes.
Never mind that nearly 3 million other people had liked the post or that the young woman was a Taylor Swift fan who liked just about everything Swift had ever posted. To the enforcers of Trumpian loyalty, this was a sign of treachery in the ranks.
Those enforcers--including the eagle-eyed official who had first spotted the offending "like"--worked for the Presidential Personnel Office, a normally under-the-radar group responsible for the hiring and firing of the roughly 4,000 political appointees in the executive branch. During the final year of the Trump administration, that office was transformed into an internal police force, obsessively monitoring administration officials for any sign of dissent, purging those who were deemed insufficiently devoted to Trump and frightening others into silence. (Many sources for this story asked to remain anonymous so they could talk about sensitive personnel issues.) Some Trump aides privately compared the PPO to the East German Stasi or even the Gestapo--always on the lookout for traitors within.
The office was run by Johnny McEntee. Just 29 when he got the job, he'd come up as Trump's body guy--the kid who carried the candidate's bags. One of Trump's most high-profile Cabinet secretaries described him to me as "a fucking idiot." But in 2020, his power was undeniable. Trump knew he was the one person willing to do anything Trump wanted. As another senior official told me, "He became the deputy president."
McEntee and his enforcers made the disastrous last weeks of the Trump presidency possible. They backed the president's manic drive to overturn the election, and helped set the stage for the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Thanks to them, in the end, the elusive "adults in the room"--those who might have been willing to confront the president or try to control his most destructive tendencies--were silenced or gone. But McEntee was there--bossing around Cabinet secretaries, decapitating the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, and forcing officials high and low to state their allegiance to Trump.
When Trump wasn't happy with the answers he was getting from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, McEntee set up a rogue legal team. This back-channel operation played a previously unknown role in the effort to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the vote. Just days before January 6, McEntee sent Pence's office an absurd memo making the case that Pence would be following Thomas Jefferson's example if he used his power to declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election.
More than anyone else in the White House, McEntee was Trump's man through and through--a man who rose to power at precisely the moment when American democracy was falling apart.
I first met Johnny McEntee when I visited Trump Tower in 2015, not long after Trump announced he was running for president. McEntee was polite, earnest, and eager to please. He identified himself as Trump's "trip director" and gave me a tour of the campaign headquarters. (He declined to comment for this story.)
McEntee was one of the first full-time staffers on the campaign, and he went everywhere Trump went. When Trump became president, McEntee had a workspace outside the Oval Office--right against the curved wall. The boss liked having McEntee around. A former quarterback for the University of Connecticut, he was good-looking and tall--but not too tall, about an inch shorter than Trump. During the first 14 months of the Trump presidency, McEntee did what he had done during the campaign: He carried Trump's bags.
In March 2018, it looked for a moment like his Washington career was over. He was fired by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly after a long-delayed FBI background check revealed that he had deposited suspiciously large sums of money into his bank account. It turned out that the money was from gambling winnings. After Kelly himself was fired, McEntee returned to his old spot outside the Oval. It was January 2020, and he wouldn't be just a body guy for long.
In mid-February, Trump called his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to a meeting. Ominous signs of the coming pandemic were beginning to emerge. Hundreds of Americans who had been evacuated from Wuhan, China, were in quarantine on military bases. The World Health Organization had just reported a frightening new development--a small number of COVID-19 cases in people who had never traveled to China. But the subject of the meeting wasn't the virus. It was staffing. Trump, newly acquitted in his first Senate impeachment trial, was looking to make some changes.
"I want to put Johnny in charge of personnel," the president told Mulvaney.
The director of presidential personnel is responsible for vetting and hiring everybody, including ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, and top intelligence officials. McEntee had never hired anybody for anything. Now he was going to be in charge of perhaps the most important human-resources department in the world?
Mulvaney called his top deputy, Emma Doyle, who oversaw the current director of personnel, into the meeting. "Mr. President," she said, "I have never said no to anything you've asked me to do, but I am asking you to please reconsider this. I don't think it is a good idea."
Doyle had spent a lot of time around the president, but she had never seen him as angry as he was about to become.
"You people never fucking listen to me!" Trump screamed. "You're going to fucking do what I tell you to do."
A few hours later, Doyle was on Air Force One, along with McEntee, en route to a Trump rally in New Hampshire. She asked him about his interest in the position.
"People have been telling me I should do that for a long time," McEntee told her. "I didn't feel ready before, but I am 29 now and I'm ready." He added, "I'm the only person around here that's just here for the president."
McEntee told the president exactly what he wanted to hear: that his political problems were caused by people who pretended to support him but were really against him, the secret Never Trumpers right there in his administration. It was time to root out the "deep state."
McEntee began scouring federal agencies for people who didn't support all things Trump. Beginning in June 2020--in the middle of both the pandemic and the presidential campaign--the personnel office informed virtually every senior official across the federal government, regardless of how long they had worked in the administration, that they would need to sit down for a job interview.
A president has a right to expect that his political appointees support his policies and will work to carry them out. These are, after all, political appointees. But most of the people McEntee's team questioned were already devoted to Trump; they were still putting their reputations on the line to work for him three and a half years into his administration. But that wasn't enough for the loyalty enforcers.
McEntee's underlings were, for the most part, comically inexperienced. He had staffed his office with very young Trump activists. He had hired his friends, and he had hired young women--as one senior official in the West Wing put it to me, "the most beautiful 21-year-old girls you could find, and guys who would be absolutely no threat to Johnny in going after those girls."
"It was the Rockettes and the Dungeons & Dragons group," the official said.
In fact, one McEntee hire was literally a Rockette; she had performed with Radio City Music Hall's finest in the 2019 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The only work experience listed on her resume besides a White House internship was a stint as a dance instructor. McEntee also hired Instagram influencers. Camryn Kinsey, for example, was 20 and still in college when McEntee gave her the title of external-relations director. In an interview with the online publication The Conservateur, she said, "Only in Trump's America could I go from working in a gym to working in the White House, because that's the American dream." (Kinsey went on to work at the pro-Trump One American News Network.)
The interviews with McEntee's team usually lasted about an hour. They included questions such as "Do you support the policies of the Trump administration and, if so, which ones?" That question was asked of Makan Delrahim, the head of the Department of Justice's antitrust division. As the person carrying out the president's antitrust policies, he found the question strange.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and HUD were asked, "Do you support the president's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan?" It was a bizarre question, given that neither official had anything remotely to do with Afghanistan policy.
The DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec was asked, "What are your political inclinations?" A little amused, she responded, "Are you asking if I am Republican?"
McEntee's enforcers scoured the social-media accounts and voting records of officials high and low. An office assistant at the DOJ was asked to explain why she had voted in a local Democratic primary a few years earlier. She explained that her parents had told her that's where her vote would count most, because the Democratic primary winner was all but certain to win the general election. Nonetheless, after the interview, she was denied a promotion and raise that she had been eligible to receive.
McEntee took a particular interest in one job category: White House liaisons to Cabinet agencies. Traditionally, the liaison job is a mid-level position, responsible for coordinating messages between the agencies and the White House. But McEntee didn't want messengers. McEntee wanted people who would boss around the senior officials and report back to him.
In early November 2020, he installed a conservative activist named Heidi Stirrup as liaison at the DOJ. Stirrup was primarily known as an anti-abortion activist who had worked as a mid-level staffer for Republicans in Congress. She had no legal experience, but she was intensely loyal to Trump--and to McEntee. Her car was easy to spot in the DOJ parking lot; it was covered with Trump bumper stickers--unusual at a department where even the most political of political appointees try to appear to be above the fray.
A few days after the election, in her first full day in the office, she went in to meet a senior official on Attorney General Bill Barr's team. It didn't go well. "You need to wake up to the fact this election is being stolen!" she screamed. "It needs to be stopped!" (The Atlantic was not able to reach Stirrup for comment.)
Barr's team saw Stirrup as more than just annoying; they worried she would snoop into DOJ investigations. This would have been highly unethical--the White House is not supposed to interfere in criminal cases.
The next time Stirrup came around to berate the senior official, he asked her if she would like to deliver her message directly to the attorney general, and with that he brought her in to see Barr. Most people find Barr intimidating, but not Heidi Stirrup. "The election is being stolen," she lectured him. "You need better people doing these investigations." And she told him she had a list of people, presumably provided by McEntee, whom he needed to hire.
Barr later told me he'd never seen this kind of behavior. By the end of the week, he had ordered her banned from the DOJ building. Her pass was deactivated, and security was instructed not to let her in.
A similar run-in between a White House liaison and senior leadership had taken place at the Department of Homeland Security a few months earlier. McEntee had installed Josh Whitehouse, a 25-year-old Trump supporter from New Hampshire, at DHS, and Whitehouse immediately started throwing his weight around, often threatening to fire people (though he had no direct authority to do so).
Two people who worked with Whitehouse on the second floor of DHS headquarters told me his mood swings were so wild that they worried he could get violent. He was overheard screaming things into the phone such as, "If they don't do this, I will literally go to their house and burn it down." (Whitehouse said the quote sounded "exaggerated" and he didn't think he had said it.) As one DHS official told me, "I was legitimately worried he was going to come and kill us." When I asked Whitehouse about this comment, he told me, "They need help." He added: "I can't imagine anybody should be afraid of another person working there if they are in it for the right reasons and aligned with the agenda."
In mid-August 2020, Whitehouse had a loud confrontation with Acting DHS Secretary Chad F. Wolf in front of several witnesses. It happened after Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at DHS, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post criticizing Trump. Taylor wrote that "the country is less secure as a direct result of the president's actions" and that he would be crossing party lines to vote for Joe Biden.
There are plaques in the office that include the names of all the past secretaries of Homeland Security and their chiefs of staff, each engraved on a metal plate. After the op-ed, Whitehouse set out to remove Taylor's name. He was in the process of unscrewing the plate when Wolf walked by.
"What are you doing?" Wolf asked him.
"I am removing the name of this traitor," Whitehouse answered.
"Stop. That doesn't belong to you. It doesn't belong to me. And we don't erase history here at the Department of Homeland Security."
Whitehouse erupted at the Cabinet secretary: "Miles Taylor is a traitor! This just shows you don't really support President Trump!"
By the fall, Whitehouse would be reassigned to a more important job: White House liaison at the Pentagon. When the move was announced, he told people, "I'm going to the Pentagon to fire [Defense Secretary Mark] Esper and those deep-state bastards!"
But before he left, he had one piece of unfinished business. At a moment when he saw that Secretary Wolf was out of the building, Whitehouse once again went over to the list of names. He removed Miles Taylor's plate and flipped it over so the metal face was blank, before screwing it back into the wall.
In October 2020, Whitehouse helped the Presidential Personnel Office write a series of memos identifying nearly two dozen Pentagon officials they thought should be fired, each outlining transgressions allegedly made against Trump.
The memo on Esper, never before made public, provides remarkable insight into the degree to which McEntee's team was calling the shots. It includes bullet points outlining Esper's sins: He "bars the display of the Confederate flag" on military bases; "opposed the President's direction to utilize American forces to put down riots"; "focused the Department on Russia"; was "actively pushing for 'diversity and inclusion'"; and so on. The memo recommended that Esper be fired immediately after the election and replaced by Christopher Miller, then the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Trump followed the script. Six days after the election, Esper was fired and replaced by Miller. McEntee also selected Miller's senior adviser, Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and regular guest on Tucker Carlson's show. As Axios's Jonathan Swan first reported, McEntee gave Macgregor a handwritten to-do list for the new team at the Pentagon:
1. Get us out of Afghanistan.
2. Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
3. Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
4. Get us out of Africa.
"This is what the president wants you to do," McEntee told him.
Once he had cleaned up the Pentagon, McEntee turned his attention to the election, and the president's efforts to overturn the results. He began providing legal advice. When White House Counsel Cipollone told Trump that Pence did not have the power to overturn the election, McEntee drafted his own constitutional analysis, with an assist from his own rogue legal advisers, directly contradicting Cipollone and every other serious expert in the country.
McEntee sent the memo via text message on January 1 to Pence's chief of staff. Here it is, in its entirety:
Jefferson Used His Position as VP to Win
. The Constitution sets precise requirements for the form in which the states are to submit their electoral votes.
. In 1801, the ballots of all states were in perfect conformity except Georgia's.
. Georgia's submission dramatically failed to conform to the requirements.
. VP Jefferson presided over the counting of the ballots even as he was one of the candidates.
. Had the defective ballots been rejected, Jefferson would have most likely lost the election.
. Senate tellers told Jefferson in a loud voice that there was a problem with the Georgia ballots.
. Rather than investigating, Jefferson ignored the problems and announced himself the winner.
. This proves that the VP has, at a minimum, a substantial discretion to address issues with the electoral process.
McEntee was no constitutional scholar and no historian. His bullet-point description was, not surprisingly, deeply flawed. Jefferson didn't discard electoral votes, as Trump wanted Pence to do. He accepted electoral votes from a state that nobody had questioned he had won.
But the facts didn't matter to McEntee. By distorting what happened in 1801, McEntee could turn up the pressure on Pence. Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of those guys on Mount Rushmore. If it was okay for him to use his power as vice president to get himself elected president, how could it not be okay for Pence to use his power to reelect Trump now?
Trump may have embraced his body guy's theory, but Pence didn't. He refused to single-handedly overturn the election, preventing an even bigger disaster from taking place on January 6.
Since Trump left the White House, McEntee has kept a low profile. But he remains in close contact with Trump, and over the summer spent time at his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, volunteering for his political operation, according to a Trump spokesperson.
People close to Trump say there is no doubt he is going to run for president again in 2024. I am not convinced he will run, but if he does, he will be the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination. The idea of him getting elected again, although highly unlikely, no longer seems impossible. If that happens, McEntee will probably play a key role right from the start. As one of Trump's more levelheaded senior aides told me, "I shudder to think what the Cabinet would look like in a second term." Johnny McEntee, I expect, is already working on his list of names.
This article has been adapted from Jonathan Karl's forthcoming book, Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show.