The Trick-Shot QB Who Played His Way Into Trump’s Inner Circle
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 article about 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 degree from 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.