Around 2 P.M. on the afternoon before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide and gatekeeper Philippe Reines was sitting on a couch in his Georgetown condo, still in pajamas, absorbing the new reality of the Trump presidency.
Reines had stayed home from his consulting firm that day, still deeply shaken by Clinton’s loss two months before. But as he watched televised scenes of the president-elect's team assembling in Washington, Reines glimpsed the one incoming Trump staffer who could offer a glimmer of relief.
“I recognized Joe Hagin, and immediately had a feeling of, well, at least that’s one person to say thank God about,” Reines told McClatchy. “In my mind, Joe Hagin is the first line of defense in avoiding nuclear Armageddon. I think if it ever got that far, Joe Hagin might save the world.”
Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations in the White House, is the rare, perhaps singular person in Trump’s orbit who commands near-universal respect and even gratitude from across the ideological spectrum. He is widely seen as a steadying hand in an administration that has struggled with investigations, inexperience and infighting, according to two dozen interviews with Trump, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administration officials and veterans of the Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns.
As Trump’s approval ratings hit historic lows and even his generally admired chief of staff, John Kelly, makes controversial headlines, those who know the inner workings of the presidency — and especially those who have qualms about Trump — frequently cite Hagin as a behind-the-scenes source of significant comfort.
“Thank God for Joe Hagin,” said a former senior George W. Bush administration official in an interview two days after special counsel Robert Mueller landed indictments against Trump associates. “Because at least if sh** truly hit the fan, there’s some emergency crisis or whatever, Joe Hagin would know what to do.”
“When Trump hired him I enjoyed a moment of peace”
Joseph Whitehouse Hagin has served in every Republican presidential administration beginning with Ronald Reagan’s. He worked closely with George H.W. Bush when the senior Bush was both vice president and president, and then served as deputy chief of staff for operations for George W. Bush and now, for Trump.
“As far as political appointees, I can’t think of anyone in America who has served more years in the White House than Joe Hagin,” said Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, who worked with Hagin in George W. Bush’s White House.
Hagin, 61, is widely described as discreet and even-keeled, a collegial but reserved workaholic Ohioan who assiduously avoids the spotlight. (Consistent with that reputation, he did not agree to an interview for this story.)
In an administration rife with palace intrigue and leaks, Hagin has managed to avoid both.
Instead, he has cemented an influential role in fractious Trumpworld — without discernibly ruffling many feathers—because there is widespread recognition of his decades of White House experience that virtually no one else there can claim.
“The general feeling is, the whole place would have collapsed in the first couple months if he wasn’t there,” said a former Trump White House official. “He was the guy that made sure so many of the trains ran on time, and he was one of the few people in a high-level position who actually had experience in the White House.”
Said a second former Trump White House official: “Nobody ever asks, “hey, what do you think of Joe?’”—something the president himself has been known to ask about some on his staff, the source said, adding, “He’s all business… he’s remained above the fray.”
As early as the 2000 presidential race, Hagin was already regarded as something of a Washington wise man. When he joined George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, recalled Stuart Stevens, a GOP operative who would later be Mitt Romney’s chief strategist, “it was like, you’ve got this high school team, and this first-round NFL draft pick comes in. Like, ‘oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do.’”
He leads meetings and teams with efficiency and flashes of wry humor, is experienced enough to avoid micromanagement and many Bush alums consider him a mentor. But he has little tolerance for “unnecessary screw-ups,” former George W. Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten said approvingly.
“If you do your job, you’re going to have no problems with Joe Hagin,” said a former Trump campaign official who has worked with and for Hagin in previous Bush administrations. “If you under-perform, you’re going to get the wrath of Joe Hagin, and you probably deserve it.”
In the George W. Bush White House, Hagin worked closely with the president during some of that administration’s most sensitive, high-pressure moments, especially following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as he accompanied Bush to Ground Zero for the president’s famous bullhorn speech.
Hagin helped create the Department of Homeland Security and was tasked with preventing leaks of the project, earning the nickname “the Enforcer,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2003. He aided Bush’s covert missions to Iraq and facilitated the modernization of the Situation Room, managed the president’s schedule and chaired the White House Task Force on the Olympics for the 2002 winter games. With a background as a volunteer firefighter, Hagin is also known for having good rapport with security and military officials.
The Obama administration was aware of Hagin’s reputation “as a straight shooter” with “good judgment,” said Alyssa Mastromonaco, who served as deputy chief of staff for operations under President Barack Obama. In 2014, Obama’s homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, tapped Hagin for a spot on an independent review panel to assess what was then a troubled Secret Service agency.
“Joe has an excellent reputation among the [White House] career and military staff. So well-respected,” said Mastromonaco, who has grave concerns about the broader administration. “When Trump hired him I enjoyed a moment of peace thinking we were in good hands.”
“Without Joe there, things could have been a lot worse”
As the 2016 campaign raged last year, some of the most vociferous critics of Donald Trump came from the Bush orbit, from the foreign policy experts who were alarmed by Trump’s temperament, to the immigration moderates appalled by what they saw as the candidate’s nativist rhetoric.
Hagin, from his perch at his security and intelligence consulting firm in the private sector, donated to Jeb Bush’s presidential primary campaign in 2015, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission. But he otherwise kept a low profile in the presidential race. Several leaders of the amorphous “Never Trump” movement said he was not on their radar—but he did not take an active role in Trump’s campaign, either. Instead, he was more focused on Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, his close friend dating back to their days at Cincinnati Country Day School, who won reelection last year.
But as attention turned toward presidential transition planning, Hagin’s name kept coming up to people such as Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming first chief of staff, who brought him into the transition effort, Priebus confirmed. Hagin joined in October of 2016, when the transition was still being chaired by Chris Christie, now the outgoing governor of New Jersey (Vice President Mike Pence took over the transition the following month).
“I did say to transition folks, ‘You need a Joe Hagin. And I don’t know if you can get Joe, but there aren’t many around who have his quality of judgment,’” said Bolten, who says he shares Nationals baseball tickets with Hagin and dines with him occasionally.
As 2016 came to a close, Hagin was spotted at Trump Tower in New York, and in January, his position as deputy chief of staff for operations was confirmed.
While there are growing numbers of Bush alumni in the Trump administration now, there’s also no doubt that there remains deep mistrust between some in the two camps, symptomatic of the broader divisions in today’s Republican Party. George W. Bush, with whom Hagin has had a close relationship, recently excoriated Trumpism in a speech in New York, and neither President Bush voted for Trump.
Yet Hagin’s old colleagues and friends say they aren’t surprised that he joined the administration, in part because he is deeply committed to the office of the presidency as an institution.
“I guarantee he follows that which George H.W. Bush inculcated in us all: that’s a sense of duty,” said Andy Card, chief of staff to George W. Bush. “If a president calls and says they need help, you try to say yes or try to talk him out of it.”
Hagin “reveres the institutions of government, especially the presidency, the White House,” Bolten added.
Card, Bolten, and a third source who worked with Hagin directly in the George W. Bush White House all independently used the term “patriot” to describe him.
In the Trump administration, Hagin is in a senior position, again managing the schedule and leading the operations side of the White House in a Chief Operating Officer-like, relatively apolitical role. He has helped to guide high-stakes moments like Trump’s maiden presidential trip abroad and his recent visit to Asia, and often travels with Trump.
“This is somebody who was hired to bring a certain level of professionalization to the White House operation,” said the second former Trump White House official. “He’s helped keep the operation in the West Wing from being as chaotic as it could have been. I know it’s been a chaotic ten months or so, but I think without Joe there, things could have been a lot worse.”
Asked to respond to those who trust Hagin but are critical of Trump and the broader administration, White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah replied: “Joe Hagin is an essential part of Gen. Kelly’s team which works together to ensure that White House operations run smoothly, the President and senior officials receive all necessary support, and the President can make important decisions based on the best advice available.”
Hagin’s tenure has not been without controversy.
He didn't sign off on Tom Price's taxpayer-funded charter jet travel, but he did approve expensive military aircraft flights used by the then-Health and Human Services secretary for work travel abroad. Price stepped down over scrutiny of his overall spending. The White House says that all approved flights have followed a process that was laid out during the Obama administration, and that the White House does not have a role in approving agency travel associated with chartered jets.
Still, there are plenty of political observers who think that joining the Trump White House has the potential to jeopardize the integrity of otherwise well-respected people.
“I’m open to the idea [that] you need responsible and thoughtful and stable people in the White House,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in the last three GOP administrations and knows Hagin, though not well enough to speak directly to Hagin’s position. “There’s also, at some point, the argument of complicity, whether one is part of an enterprise that’s so fundamentally problematic.”
Indeed, even many of the most respected members of the administration have on occasion found themselves taking heat over working for Trump. That’s been the case for aides ranging from National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who publicly defended Trump on controversial Russia-related issues, to Kelly, the chief of staff, who is well-regarded for his military service and is credited with bringing increased order to the White House, but has found himself at the center of several charged disputes this fall. Defense Secretary James Mattis also faced political headwinds as he grappled with Trump’s call earlier this year to ban transgender troops.
Asked how Hagin is liking the White House these days, Bolten replied, “My instinct is, because he’s working for an insurgent president who didn’t come into the White House with a more traditional infrastructure and retinue of experienced White House hands, because of that, the job’s more difficult. But my sense is, he is liking it, and he’s probably liking it because he’s able to do a good job.”
Some of Trump’s staunchest critics don’t want Hagin to be anywhere else.
This fall, Reines, the longtime Clinton loyalist, quit his consulting firm in order to “resist” Trump and his administration full time, POLITICO reported.
But he makes an exception for Hagin, after spending several hours in a meeting with him a few years ago, when both men were in the private sector. He came away from the conversation with the sense that Hagin is someone who has “not just…been there, done that, but that he has been there, done that, exceptionally.”
“No one’s been spared from being judged about whether joining this White House was the right thing to do, except for Joe Hagin,” Reines said. “That’s saying something.”
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.