JUNE 15, 2018
Taylor Weyeneth stands near the White House on June 9. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, D.C. – He was one of the fastest-rising political appointees of the Trump administration, an unpaid campaign intern with no professional experience who soared into a top job with a six-figure salary at the White House’s drug policy office. But on Jan. 14, in the hours after a front-page Washington Post story cast doubt on his résumé and qualifications, 24-year-old Taylor Weyeneth was feeling vulnerable.
“Can I ask you what the plan is for me now,” Weyeneth texted the White House official who had promoted him.
“You’re fine. No action required,” Sean Doocey, then deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, wrote back. “It is garbage journalism by a garbage newspaper.”
Two months later, Weyeneth was gone — demoted, told not to speak publicly and finally fired as the political fallout spread.
This is the inside account of a political appointee’s time in Trump’s Washington. It’s the story of a young operative whose central qualification was loyalty and whose responsibilities included furnishing the White House with intelligence about career employees at a time when the administration distrusts the standing bureaucracy to an unusual degree.
Weyeneth recently agreed to a request from The Post to talk about his experiences in the administration and the unusual circumstances that enabled him to climb through the ranks and into the White House. He provided emails, texts and other documents to back up his account.
In just over a year, Weyeneth received six promotions in the campaign and administration. They culminated with his appointment as deputy chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, where he oversaw veteran employees and helped steer an operation that was supposed to lead the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“This is more than I ever dreamed of,” Weyeneth recalled thinking, even as he worried about a possible backlash over his lack of qualifications: “Have I reached too far? Is public opinion going to take over? Is this going to become an article?”
Weyeneth’s story offers a fresh perspective on the chaos of Trump’s campaign and first year in office. He was among more than 250 political appointees to federal agencies and the White House who had left the administration as of mid-March, some of them after just weeks or months, according to a Post tally of White House departures and analysis of agency records released by the Office of Personnel Management under a Freedom of Information Act request.
It illustrates ongoing problems in Trump’s Presidential Personnel Office, a little-known but crucial operation that has filled fewer key government posts than the four prior administrations, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that teamed up with The Post to track appointments.
The administration’s haphazard appointment process is unlike any in recent memory and has left the federal government unsteadied at the highest levels. Vacancies were one of the reasons Weyeneth was able to move up so frequently, the White House has acknowledged. For Weyeneth’s final promotion, though, Doocey reassigned an experienced “career incumbent” civil servant to create room for him to become deputy chief of staff at ONDCP, according to a memo independently obtained by The Post.
Doocey and others wanted someone loyal to Trump and his policies in a position of authority, at a time when the office had lost most of its political appointees and had no leader, Weyeneth said. The White House tasked him with reporting back on the ONDCP operations and the activities of its acting director, a career bureaucrat, Weyeneth said.
Today, Weyeneth is doing temp work, including outdoor labor for a contractor at an intelligence agency. He is looking for private-sector work and is helping a substance abuse advocate on a project aimed at improving services for drug addicts.
In interviews, Weyeneth acknowledged mistakes, including errors on his résumés. He said he continues to support Trump and does not regret working for him. But he laments that he was not more skeptical when Doocey and other officials assured him that he could do the job and that they would protect him in the face of media-driven controversies.
“It got to a point where the people that were so supportive and so defensive of me, at least I had thought, were unable to continue their support,” Weyeneth said, “and mentioned to me word for word that we have to stop the bleeding.”
By opening up to the The Post, Weyeneth said he was aiming for a second chance. He wants to add to his own narrative in the hope that potential employers might see a more complete picture when they look him up online. “Redemption,” he said, describing his goal. “Being able to kind of rebuild, restart.”
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused Weyeneth of betraying his former colleagues by speaking to The Post for this story.
“So a guy is creating bad press,” the official said, “he’s sent supportive messages from people who were advocating for him internally, and his reaction is to try to embarrass them by leaking information to The Washington Post?”
The official said that Doocey, now director of the Presidential Personnel Office, declined to comment.
Room to rise
Taylor Weyeneth comes from a middle-class family in Upstate New York, and some of his relatives have suffered the ill effects of substance abuse, including one who died of a heroin overdose. He became interested in Trump in the fall of 2015, the start of his senior year as a legal studies student at St. John’s University in Queens. He liked Trump’s statements about the need to confront the opioid crisis and cut taxes.
The following spring, as he contemplated what he would do after graduation, Weyeneth went to the Trump campaign website, filled out a form and volunteered. Just as Trump was pinning down the Republican nomination, Weyeneth became an intern at the campaign’s headquarters in Trump Tower in New York.
His first promotion came a few weeks later. He was hired to be a coordinator for some of the interns, earning the equivalent of about $48,000 annually, Weyeneth said. Among the first people he told was his mother, Kim Weyeneth.
“He started as an intern but they saw something in him, the same thing I’ve always seen in him, and they decided to hire him fulltime,” she wrote on Facebook. “I’m beyond proud he is going to be a part of history.”
Weyeneth soon caught the eye of Jeff DeWit, the campaign’s new chief operating officer. At the time, there were only a few dozen full-time paid employees at the headquarters. In an interview, DeWit said Weyeneth impressed him because he showed up early, stayed late and worked hard. “He’s a good kid,” said DeWit, now the chief financial officer at NASA.
Within weeks, Weyeneth was named coordinator for national voter services, a title that came with a wide array of logistical chores, including helping to launch a new call center in Texas. By the fall, Weyeneth said, he was working with scores of interns and volunteers. He said he was proud to be involved in a daily report for Trump staff that tallied the number of calls, emails and donations received by the campaign.
A few days before the election, Weyeneth had another chance to shine. He said a staff member in the office of Rick Dearborn, then a senior policy adviser to Trump, asked that Weyeneth and the interns create a list of Republican lawmakers and political figures who openly supported Trump. With a possible victory in sight, the campaign was contemplating how to fill an administration with loyalists.
Aiming to impress Dearborn, Weyeneth drove his interns hard to quickly create a spreadsheet of the names. “We got it done immediately,” he said. “It just showed commitment and dedication right off the bat.”
Dearborn did not respond to requests for an interview.
‘I’m now a political appointee’
Weyeneth was giddy about Trump’s victory. A photo from election night shows Weyeneth and volunteers drinking beer and screaming at a campaign party in Manhattan.
He was excited about the possibility of staying on with the Trump camp, he said, and lobbied Dearborn’s office. “Listen, I want to come on board,” Weyeneth recalled saying.
The request was well-timed. On Nov. 11, 2016, Trump fired the leader of his transition planning, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and tossed out long lists of people who had been recommended to run executive branch agencies.
In doing so, Trump virtually guaranteed his administration would get off to a rocky start. But that meant opportunities for Weyeneth and other young people.
“Within a couple of days, I ended up in the transition team,” he said. “And it set me on a completely different path.”
Weyeneth worked directly with Dearborn, the new executive director of the transition, helping staff with travel arrangements and other administrative tasks, according to interviews and a résumé shared by the White House. Just after Christmas, he was ordered to help prepare the transition office in Washington. He rented a U-Haul van, loaded his stuff and on New Year’s Day drove south.
Among other things, Weyeneth helped compile a list of trusted politicos who could serve on the “beachhead teams” that would flood federal agencies in the days and weeks after Trump’s inauguration.
On Jan. 10, 2017, Weyeneth received an email from a transition official confirming his next move: confidential assistant on the Treasury Department’s beachhead team, according to an email he gave The Post.
He remembers his excitement and thinking, “I’m now a political appointee for a president of the United States.”
As an entry-level administration official, Weyeneth was part of a team responsible for helping nominees through their appointment process, making sure they filled out the proper forms on time.
He was soon designated a deputy White House liaison, a job that is part of a political network that recruits administration officials and communicates constantly with White House officials about agency operations, political strategy and news coverage, according to documents and interviews.
Among other things, Weyeneth said he told personnel officials about the opposition of some human resources officials at Treasury to the salaries proposed for some nominees.
He wasn’t at Treasury for long, though, because another door to advancement had opened. A friend who was working as White House liaison at the Office of National Drug Control Policy called to say she was moving to another job. She asked if he might be interested.
Weyeneth said he leaped at the opportunity, and Doocey signed off.
“I said absolutely, this is an important issue right now in the country. The president cares about it,” he told The Post, recalling his response. “I moved into ONDCP on March 13th of 2017, a day I’ll never forget. Being able to get a badge, where I go in and out of the White House and have access to all of these different people. You know, eat lunch next to the West Wing. I mean it was incredible.”
The new job came with a $79,720 salary, according to OPM records. It also came with risks.
‘We took what we could get’
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is supposed to coordinate drug-fighting efforts across the government. But it was in peril. The White House had signaled that it might cut its budget dramatically. The office had no permanent leader — a position known as the drug czar — and it was losing political appointees who could brief White House officials about ONDCP operations, documents and interviews show.
Regardless, Weyeneth’s ambition was in bloom. In early July, he joked with a colleague that he wanted to be ONDCP’s chief of staff one day, a job that in the past has been filled by an Army general, a former head of Customs and Border Protection and others with years of experience. He recalled the conversation, he told The Post, because of the reaction he got.
The colleague said, “Hopefully no time soon.”
“I was just like, ‘Why? Do you think it would be really that bad?’ ”
In his account, the colleague said: “Just wait until public opinion takes hold.”
About three weeks later, on July 28, Weyeneth said, Doocey summoned him. He showed Weyeneth a memo that said Lawrence “Chip” Muir, who had just become the office’s general counsel, also was going to serve as acting chief of staff. It named Weyeneth the deputy chief of staff, making him third in command, as well as the office’s White House liaison.
“I was ambitious enough to be able to say, ‘Hell, yeah! I’m being asked to serve my country,’ ” he told The Post.
The job change took effect that same day. Weyeneth’s salary rose to more than $112,000, documents show.
In an interview, Muir said career staffers were surprised that someone so young and inexperienced was placed in the deputy’s job, a position that had recently been occupied by a lawyer and a veteran government official.
“We were in the grip of an opioid crisis and the American people expected us to get the work done,” he said. “We needed personnel in key positions, and we took what we could get.”
For the first several weeks, Weyeneth feared the press might write a story about him, focusing on his inexperience. When nothing was published, he said, he began to enjoy the job.
Weyeneth was assigned to serve as a “sherpa” for Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), the failed nominee to be Trump’s drug czar, arranging meetings with congressional leaders, escorting Marino to the Hill and looking out for the administration’s interests.
More important, he was told to keep tabs on Richard Baum, a career employee serving as acting director, and other civil servants. At the time, White House officials feared Baum might be leaking to the press, according to interviews with knowledgeable officials. Weyeneth said he was told to move into an office close to Baum and report his activities to White House officials.
Weyeneth also worked on a plan to cut staff, streamline operations and draw attention to the office’s work under Trump.
On Dec. 21, 2017, Weyeneth received an envelope from the office of Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly. “Dear Taylor,” said the letter signed by Kelly, one of many he sent to the White House staff. “Thank you for your hard work this year. Your dedication and service to our country has been instrumental to the success of President Trump’s administration.”
Weyeneth’s ascent continued. He took on new responsibilities following the departure of seven other Trump administration appointees in the office, including Muir, over several months.
“The functions of the Chief of Staff will be picked up by me and the deputy Chief of Staff,” Baum wrote on Jan. 3, 2018, according to a memo obtained by The Post independent of Weyeneth.
Baum declined a request for an interview.
The turning point
Unknown to Weyeneth, The Post was reporting about his remarkable rise. On Jan. 12, after The Post described its reporting to the White House, an administration official released a statement saying that discrepancies and inaccuracies in Weyeneth’s résumés had surfaced during checks for a security clearance. Weyeneth had been allowed to submit a corrected résumé. Weyeneth recently told The Post that the errors — he appeared to claim to have a master’s degree, and he wrote that he was vice president of his fraternity for longer than was the case — were made in haste, not to deceive.
Though it defended Weyeneth, the statement said he was going to be removed as deputy chief of staff and reinstated to a lower-level job in the office as a White House liaison.
When the Post story appeared online late on Jan. 13, the headline read: “Meet the 24-year-old Trump campaign worker appointed to help lead the government’s drug policy office.” It ran on the front page the next day. Late that morning, Doocey texted Weyeneth, according to copies shared by Weyeneth.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Doocey wrote. “Even though he tried to knife you in the face.”
“And obviously you know I am really happy about your support in this,” Weyeneth wrote, adding later: “Thank you.”
“You’re fine,” Doocey wrote, adding: “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Johnny DeStefano, then the director of PPO, wrote an email to Weyeneth that morning.
“Hang in there. Total unfair garbage in WaPo,” he wrote, according to a copy shared by Weyeneth. “By all accounts you are doing a great job.”
A White House official said DeStefano, now a senior Trump adviser, declined a request for an interview.
Weyeneth was relieved to be going back to a job “more appropriate” for his age and experience, he recently told The Post. But soon his calm was shattered. A follow-up story in The Post quoted a partner in a New York law firm as saying that when Weyeneth was a legal assistant there, after a time he “just didn’t show.”
The partner, Brian O’Dwyer of O’Dwyer and Bernstein, recently acknowledged that his original account was not quite right, and that Weyeneth had resigned. “Had left on very good terms,” O’Dwyer said in an interview.
Weyeneth’s misstep came a few months later, O’Dwyer said. Weyeneth had asked the firm for additional instruction relating to real estate transactions. After the firm devoted time to training him, the young man stopped going and did not respond to text messages, O’Dwyer said.
Weyeneth said the White House did not let him defend himself in The Post’s news stories. “They knew all of it,” Weyeneth said. “I wasn’t allowed to give a statement saying, ‘No I was not fired.’ I wasn’t allowed to share any other documentation. They just said, ‘Listen you’re going to be fine. Like, it’s a Democrat from New York saying they fired you. No one is going to care about that.’ ”
A White House official acknowledged that Weyeneth was urged not to speak publicly. “Given the inaccuracies in Mr. Weyeneth’s resume, and his inability to corroborate any of his claims with us at the time, we strongly advised him against being interviewed,” the official said.
In any case, cable television pundits and other news outlets jumped on the story.
The White House soon released another statement. “Mr. Weyeneth has decided to depart ONDCP at the end of the month,” it said.
Weyeneth said when he walked out of the White House for the last time, he despaired for his future. He delayed telling his mother until he could come up with a message that softened the blow.
PPO officials arranged to send Weyeneth to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he worked in a cubicle as a lower-level assistant. On March 22, he was called into a conference room by the department’s White House liaison and handed a notice. Its subject line: “Termination.”
Weyeneth said he felt ill as he was escorted out of the building.
“Everything that happened at the White House — and me having to leave the White House — was devastating,” he said. “Then being relieved of my duties at HUD . . . I was sick to my stomach.”
Weyeneth said he had been hearing for weeks that the White House doubted his loyalty. He said he believes his firing was meant in part as a warning to other administration officials.
The White House official did not respond to questions about that belief.
Weyeneth said he is merely trying to tell his own story. He recognizes that he could have avoided much of the trouble if he had taken more care with his résumé and remained with jobs he was suited for. But he also struck a defiant tone, saying there are legions of young people in Washington that would have taken advantage of the chance to become a deputy chief of staff.
“This is D.C. It’s the town of social climbing, and climbing the political and business ladder,” he said. “So of course you would accept a role that might be above you.”
For his future prospects, Weyeneth believes he will be on a steadier path as a result of what happened. “And although maybe I had to take quite a few steps back,” he said, “right now I’m still very optimistic about what’s to come.”
Courtesy/Source: Washington Post