“If American People Really Understood How Power Works Inside the Beltway, They’d Faint.”
Cassidy Hutchinson and the latent power of the seemingly invisible young staffers in D.C.
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In the wake of the courage and candor of 26-year-old former White House staffer Cassidy Hutchinson at the January 6th hearings, Pat Cipollone, the former White House counsel, is now slated to appear before the committee by this Friday. One imagines from what we’ve already heard from others—namely Hutchinson quoting Cipollone as saying about Trump’s desire to head to the Capitol, “We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen”—that Cipollone is likely to drop some neutron bombs in his observations. My phone has been ringing off the hook with speculation about how surely it’s inconceivable that in the wake of this, Merrick Garland will not act.
But back to Hutchinson, whom I’ve found hard to get out of my mind. Peggy Noonan’s excellent column this past weekend on the latent power of the numerous seemingly invisible young staffers in D.C. reminded me of the very first investigative piece I ever wrote— about precisely that subject—for Vanity Fair in 2001.
My article for the December 2001 issue of Vanity Fair.
In late August and early September of that year, I spent two weeks on Capitol Hill “blending in” with the D.C. staffers. (I was in my early 30s at the time.) I partied with them until the small hours. I walked with them during lunch. They shared their journals with me. The hook was the recent murder of D.C. intern Chandra Levy. At the time, speculation had focused on Gary Condit, the married congressman who had had an affair with the 24-year-old Levy. (Condit was not her murderer. The man who would be charged with her murder was in fact Ingmar Guandique.) The purpose of my assignment was to understand how both power and the abuse of power—especially in the form of exploitative sex—operated in the nation’s capital.
What I was discovered was truly shocking—and not just because of the inappropriate sexual innuendo from the politicians, although that was everywhere. (I met a young Anthony Weiner during that trip whose flirting was, in hindsight, a foreshadowing of his later troubles...) But what was more shocking to me—and which is pertinent to Hutchinson’s testimony—is how much authority and insight the D.C. “kids” had into their bosses’ portfolios. The young staffers knew so much and were responsible for so much that I came away wondering who was really in charge. The blurred lines were delineated even more sharply when, in the midst of my reporting, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. On September 12th, I witnessed incredibly childish behavior from a rowdy group of congressmen who encountered myself and the interns I was shadowing, and I also saw more adult behavior from some of the “kids.”
One line that didn’t make it into the piece but that I remember distinctly came from a sharp, ambitious staffer who stood out among his peers and who told me, “If American people really understood how power works inside the Beltway, they’d faint.”
Here is an excerpt from my 2001 piece:
Diana basks in the euphoria of her recent social triumph like one who has just aced a school exam. “You will do well on the Hill if you are good with dealing with people,” she instructs Beth and Pat. People who can’t function socially, she says, “simply won’t get on.… It’s all about P.R.—P.R. and networking.”
Her chief of staff’s extensive Rolodex, she says, is what got Representative Rogers, a freshman congressman elected by just 111 votes, onto Tom DeLay’s deputy-whip team. “Mike is now on the deputy-whip team, which is unheard of for a freshman—but Chris [Cox, the chief of staff] knows Tom DeLay and all the big boys. He has a reputation for picking freshman congressmen and keeping them in office.”
She has already told Chris—who is only 31—that she’d like to be groomed to be Rogers’s press secretary. She thinks this may help her achieve her ultimate goal, landing a job as a television journalist. Representative Rogers was profiled prominently in The Washington Post recently. “The press secretary can make the difference between the congressman getting local or national coverage,” says Diana.
Most congressmen, she says blithely, are just puppets. The chief of staff sets the agenda, while the legislative director and the legislative assistant write the bills and research the issues. “The congressman kind of just puts the vote in,” she explains.
Well, Cassidy Hutchinson may not have looked powerful to Trump when she cleaned up the lunch he threw against the wall, but how about now?