First on CNN: Another top Trump aide to exit as legislative activity dries up
Posted May 21, 2019 5:48 p.m. EDT
Updated May 21, 2019 5:59 p.m. EDT
CNN — President Donald Trump's point person on Capitol Hill, Shahira Knight, is leaving her post as multiple aides in the White House legislative affairs office and beyond eye the exits heading into a campaign season that will likely freeze legislative activity on both sides of the aisle.
Multiple sources close to Knight say she has discussed leaving the White House for months, and her impending exit was widely expected -- particularly because she told colleagues she wanted to last a year in the job, and her anniversary in the role is approaching in mid-July.
"Shahira has done a wonderful job as my legislative affairs director. She was outstanding for us and for our country and will be a tremendous success in the private sector," Trump said in a statement to CNN.
Knight informed the President of her decision to leave on Tuesday afternoon.
"It has been a great honor to serve President Trump and this country," she said in a statement. "I will always be grateful for the experience I have gained, and proud of the accomplishments I have helped achieve alongside a very talented White House team."
A White House official says she was given a job offer in the private sector that she felt she couldn't turn down.
Knight has warned legislative staff that now is the time to leave, a source familiar with her comments said, if they want to land the lucrative consulting jobs many ex-aides have hoped would be their reward for working in the White House. The reason: consulting firms and corporations may soon start to hold off on writing lavish paychecks to Trump-connected operatives until they see if the President will be reelected or if they will need to seek personnel connected to a new administration.
The uncertainty surrounding who will occupy the Oval Office less than two years from now could temporarily limit job prospects for departing White House officials, forcing those currently on the inside to decide on their next move sooner rather than later -- or risk being stuck in their jobs through January 2021.
Johnny DeStefano, a top White House aide, became the latest senior official to submit his resignation this week after working in the West Wing since the start of Trump's presidency. A source close to DeStefano said he is in talks to take on an advisory role at Juul, an e-cigarette company, although he is not expected to lobby for them.
And the legislative affairs team could slim down even more significantly due to the dim prospects for passing any substantial legislation in a presidential election year, when all members of the House and many in the Senate will be focused on running for their own seats as well as campaigning for their party's nominees.
An administration official says its typical for legislative affairs shops to slim down after two years when it gets closer to the election. At least one legislative affairs aide has already left to take a job at a consulting firm in the past month, and more are expected to follow him out the door in the months ahead.
Leon Panetta, who spent three years as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and who is also close to former Trump chief of staff John Kelly, told CNN that dramatic turnover in a White House legislative affairs shop is "not normal."
"The problem today is that Washington is more dysfunctional than ever, and there is a growing inability of the President and the leadership and the Congress to be able to work together to get things done, and that frustration may clearly be having an impact on the people who work in the legislative area," Panetta said.
He noted past presidents have typically pursued aggressive legislative agendas during the first two years of their first terms and then struggled more on Capitol Hill during the second two years, but have still retained their legislative affairs offices because things like spending bills still need attention, even in an election year.
Sources say Knight has also seen her clout diminished by the arrival of acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, whose Capitol Hill ties as a former congressman have allowed him to engage directly with members and effectively sideline Knight in many discussions.
A similar dynamic has played out with the President's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, according to one of the sources. A source familiar with the dynamics said Knight is frequently left out of senior-level meetings in which legislative issues are discussed. At times, the source said, legislative aides have received phone calls from lawmakers about upcoming meetings at the White House that Knight and her team did not even know had been scheduled.
"Shahira is an incredible asset to me, to this administration, and to the country," Mulvaney said in a statement. "She's as valuable for her strategic political insights behind the scenes as she is for her numerous public contributions. I've enjoyed working alongside her every day I have been here, and it is an understatement to say that she will be sorely missed."
Two White House officials refuted the suggestion that Mulvaney has bypassed Knight routinely, noting the acting chief of staff frequently loops Knight in on his talks or briefs her afterward on conversations he has had with members. The official said Mulvaney values Knight's opinion.
"Their relationship is solid," one of the officials said.
A source close to Kushner said he also does not intentionally circumvent Knight when he interacts with lawmakers and that he always aims to fill her in after the fact if he's had substantial conversations on the Hill. But the nature of his increasingly hands-on role with policy means he is conducting his own congressional outreach, the source acknowledged, and that has sometimes left Knight on the sidelines.
"It was truly a pleasure to work with Shahira on so many important issues including the historic tax reform package and criminal justice reform," Kushner said in a statement to CNN. "Her ability to navigate the politics on Capitol Hill will be greatly missed here at the White House."