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As Investigations Ramp Up, Trump Has Expanded White House Counsel's Office

New data show that the Trump administration has significantly expanded its staffing in the past year, especially in the White House counsel's office. Above, the White House in a 2017 file photo.
Eric Thayer
Getty Images
New data show that the Trump administration has significantly expanded its staffing in the past year, especially in the White House counsel's office. Above, the White House in a 2017 file photo.

Facing a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats who are issuing document demands and subpoenas, President Trump's White House counsel's office grew its payroll by nearly a third, newly released records reveal.

From 2018 to 2019, the counsel's office added 10 people.

"I'm not surprised by the increase in the number of lawyers in the counsel's office given the 2018 elections," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who tracks White House staffing and turnover at the Brookings Institution.

The White House was clearly preparing for investigations, Tenpas said. Pat Cipollone replaced Don McGahn as White House counsel last December and then proceeded to hire additional lawyers.

"At the point they started gearing up, they didn't know the outcome of the Mueller report, which may have prompted even more hiring," Tenpas said.

This is part of an overall growth in both the number of people working at the White House and how much they are getting paid.

In a report to Congress made public last week, the White House detailed the salaries and titles of the 418 staffers working under Trump. It is a snapshot in time, released once a year, but it illuminates trends in White House hiring.

The Trump White House has gone from boasting about its relatively small staff and payroll figures, which were lower than the Obama administration's, to eclipsing the amount spent on staff salaries in Obama's final year in office. Then-press secretary Sean Spicer told NPR in 2017 that the smaller operation at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. at that time was the result of "trying to give taxpayers the best return."

In the past year, 44 new positions were added to the White House staff, and just about everyone got a pay raise. There are still fewer people working in the Trump White House than in Obama's, but the combined salaries come in at $41.3 million, a shade more than in Obama's last year.

The average salary for Trump White House employees is $99,000, significantly higher than salaries in the Obama years, even when accounting for inflation. This is despite Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, two of Trump's top aides and family members, continuing to work without pay in their government positions.

"President Trump has assembled an incredible team at the White House and across the federal government who — in spite of 93% negative news coverage — has accomplished undeniable successes," said White House spokesman Judd Deere when asked about the payroll changes.

Contributing to this increase in spending were pay raises for nearly all White House employees, including the highest-paid staffers. During Trump's first two years, no one employed by the White House made more than $179,700. Today, those same advisers — think of assistants to the president such as Stephanie Grisham, Kellyanne Conway, John Bolton and Larry Kudlow — are making $183,000.

The two highest-paid aides are acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney ($203,500) and his top deputy, John Czwartacki ($239,595). They are paid more than anyone else since they are technically temporarily assigned to the White House from other parts of the government.

Of course, the high turnover of Trump's White House means that not all those top-tier staffers were around to see those raises. Of those who are making the maximum salary, only half have been with the White House since 2017.

"No matter how you slice the data, his turnover is off the charts," said Tenpas.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Sean McMinn is a data editor on NPR's Investigations team.