When Kevin Chmielewski emerged from the FBI’s fortress of a headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., his head was spinning. It was the fall of 2017. He’d just left a classified briefing about a matter of national security. As he walked back to his office at the Environmental Protection Agency, Chmielewski knew what he had to do next: He had to tell his boss, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, to get over to the bureau and receive his own briefing as soon as possible. After all, it was Pruitt the FBI needed to speak with about a matter so urgent.
Chmielewski (pronounced shim-uh-LESS-ski) had gone to work at the EPA at the urging of his friends in the Trump White House, who wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on Pruitt. Chmielewski had worked the 2016 campaign as an advance man for Donald Trump, one of the men and women in suits and earpieces who map out every trip, drive the candidate from event to event, and protect him as he walks through a crowd. Chmielewski liked to describe advance staffers as the Navy SEALs of politics: If they did their jobs well, no one would notice their presence or remember their name. “My whole career has been no one knows and no one cares who Kevin Chmielewski is,” he says.
Chmielewski looked the part of a SEAL — square-jawed, crew cut, with a surfer’s build, and tattoos sleeving his arms — but as an advance man he had none of the stability of a military job. He bounced from one campaign to the next every cycle, working mostly for prominent Republican candidates. Each time, he hoped that his boss’s victory would lead to a government job and a steady paycheck. Instead, he woke up out of work the day after the election — McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012. He packed up his car and headed back home to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, working odd jobs until the next candidate came calling.
In the time he worked for the Trump campaign, he fended off a protester who had rushed the stage in Dayton, Ohio, and guided Trump’s motorcade through a violent crowd in Fresno, California. He’d grown close with Trump’s kids. “I don’t stick up for Trump or the Trumps that much,” he says. “But Ivanka, to the staff, was incredible. Jared was helpful and pleasant, would never ask for anything. They were very easy to work for.”
With Trump, Chmielewski was finally on a winning team. He says he had his pick of jobs in the administration and, coming from a law-enforcement family, chose the Department of Homeland Security. But within months, Chmielewski says, the White House asked him to consider moving to the EPA. Officially, he would be the director of scheduling and advance. Unofficially, he would keep an eye on the new administrator, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general whose questionable behavior was raising alarms. Pruitt was “a knucklehead,” Chmielewski remembers Trump telling him. “He’s doing a lot of stuff we don’t agree with,” a White House official told him. “We need one of our guys” to rein him in.
Chmielewski never forgot what Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, told him when he arrived at the EPA: “The nightmare is now yours.” Even though he’d been in office for a few months, Pruitt had infuriated environmentalists and Democrats with his anti-science, industry-friendly stance, stripping any mention of climate change from EPA websites, rolling back regulations, and cozying up to the leaders of major fossil-fuel companies. Internally, though, Pruitt’s personal behavior was the problem Jackson spoke of. Excessive travel, first-class flights, decorating his office with paintings from the Smithsonian, an around-the-clock security detail, and requests for an armored car: Pruitt was one leak away from embarrassing the administration with any one of his indiscretions.
But after his classified FBI briefing, Chmielewski’s primary concern was getting Pruitt’s attention. What he’d learned from the bureau was the kind of information that kept you up at night, something Chmielewski believed a Cabinet secretary should know and act on immediately. “It was a massive deal,” he says. “Quite frankly I don’t sleep well.”
Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff, didn’t have a security clearance, so Chmielewski tried to convey the urgency of the situation without spilling any classified details, telling Jackson the FBI needed to speak with Pruitt.
“Kevin, stop,” Jackson said, according to Chmielewski’s recollection of events. “Do not say another word to Scott Pruitt about this.” Why? Chmielewski asked. “Plausible deniability,” Jackson replied.
Plausible deniability? Chmielewski was stunned. Was he trying to shield Pruitt from a matter of national security without even knowing what it was? (Jackson didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Undeterred, Chmielewski sought out Pruitt himself and found the administrator surrounded by a gaggle of aides. “Sir, I just met with the FBI,” he said. “They really didn’t want to meet with me. They wanted to meet with you.”
When Pruitt brushed him off, Chmielewski pressed harder. “Sir, I don’t think you understand,” he said. “Kevin,” Pruitt shot back, “I don’t think you understand.” Whatever it was, Pruitt didn’t want to know about it. End of story. (Pruitt didn’t respond to requests for comment by email and phone.)
Chmielewski — who told this story for the first time in interviews with Rolling Stone — says he realized then that Pruitt was more than just self-absorbed or brazen: By refusing to be briefed on a matter of national security, he was dangerous. Chmielewski had already told others in the administration about some of Pruitt’s behavior, and his resolve now hardened. Over a span of months, he made dozens of disclosures to officials in the EPA, the White House, and other parts of the administration about Pruitt’s secrecy, spending habits, and abuses of power. Chmielewski didn’t realize it at the time, but he had become a whistleblower. “I had no idea really what a whistleblower was, what their rights were, when all this stuff was happening,” he says now. “It’s still weird to say I’m a whistleblower. It feels like it’s a dirty word.”
What happened next still feels like a blur to him. After sounding the alarm internally, Chmielewski’s name leaked to Congress and the media. He got inundated with hundreds of requests for interviews as well as an invitation to testify on Capitol Hill. Chmielewski’s whistleblowing played a key role in exposing Pruitt’s wrongdoing and pressuring the administration to force Pruitt out.
“Whether [Chmielewski’s] policies were aligned with ours or not, clearly he had that moral compass to recognize what was going on was deeply unethical and deeply problematic,” says Adam Beitman of the Sierra Club. “We needed that at the time, and it’s a shame that there were so few people who did what he did.”
But while Pruitt remains a lawyer in good standing, and, for a time, a registered lobbyist in the state of Indiana, Chmielewski has watched his life fall apart. He was removed from the EPA building by an armed security guard. His friends from the Trump White House won’t return his calls and texts. No Republican campaign will hire him, he says. When he sought protection under a federal whistleblower statute, he learned that as a political appointee he fell into a legal loophole. He then sued the EPA, saying the agency had violated his First Amendment free-speech rights as a citizen whistleblower. The lawyers for the Trump administration fought his case, only for the Biden administration to pick up where the Trump-era lawyers left off.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” he says. “I’ve sold everything and am just making ends meet. These are the repercussions of doing the right thing.”
The drive from Washington, D.C., to Chmielewski’s home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore takes three hours, but the distance feels that much farther when you understand where Chmielewski is now compared with his years on the campaign trail or serving in the Trump administration. He works as a manager at a small golf-course restaurant called the Hideaway, a few miles inland from the boardwalk-lined beaches of Ocean City. He says he earns about $40,000 a year, less than a third of what he made at the EPA, and drives Uber and Lyft to make extra cash during the tourism offseason. His wife, Brianne, who had worked full-time raising their two children, drives the beer cart at the golf course. Since losing his EPA job, he’s drained his bank accounts and retirement funds to pay the bills and support his family. “I’m on the verge of bankruptcy,” he tells me, seated at a corner table in the restaurant one day this summer.
Spread out on the table is a collection of photos, letters, and other memorabilia from Chmielewski’s career as an advance man. Hand-signed thank-you letters from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. A personalized plaque from the 2016 Trump campaign. He shows them to me almost as proof of the life he’d once had.
Seated alongside his legal team, Chmielewski talks like a man who still hasn’t quite fathomed how he ended up where he is today. The words tumble out of him in a breathless rush, one story dissolving into the next, and when he feels like he’s not doing the story justice, he reaches for his cellphone, which doubles as an audiovisual archive of his life in politics. He searches for a clip from a Trump campaign rally and plays it for me.
A deafening roar fills a packed gymnasium. It’s April 20th, 2016. The venue is Chmielewski’s old high school, a few miles from where we’re sitting, in the town of Berlin, Maryland. Midway through the rally, Trump asks, “Where the hell is Kevin? He’s a star. Where is Kevin? Get Kevin up here.” Chants of “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!” ring out as Chmielewski reluctantly appears onstage. “I haven’t paid for a drink in town since,” he says.
It was quite the homecoming for a guy who had barely graduated and had so little money growing up that he couldn’t afford his own high-school yearbook. His parents were divorced; his mother raised him while working as a bartender, and his father was an electrician. He dreamed of working in the Secret Service, and spent two years in the Coast Guard to get the military service that would help him meet that dream, but he was honorably discharged to help care for his disabled brother. He met Rick Ahern, one of the most famous advance staffers in history. Ahern had staffed President Reagan when Reagan was shot outside the Washington Hilton. Ahern gave Chmielewski his first break, working advance on a trip for then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Grunt-level jobs for George W. Bush and other GOP bigwigs followed; one year, he says he donned a bunny suit for the annual White House Easter-egg-roll celebration. With each gig, Chmielewski found his place in the small fraternity of professional advance staffers.
Chmielewski spent so much time in close quarters with the people he worked for, carrying their confidences and ensuring their safety, that it was hard not to feel a familial kinship. When Mitt and Ann Romney, whom Chmielewski staffed during the 2012 presidential race, learned that he and his girlfriend had been together for more than a decade but hadn’t married, he says the Romneys insisted he propose before the campaign was over. As he tells this story to me, he pulls out his phone again and shows me a photo of him down on one knee, proposing to Brianne, the Romneys standing in the background, looking on like proud parents. On election night, Chmielewski recalls, Romney, who’d just delivered his concession speech, said to the group: “Guys, we didn’t lose. We’re getting Kevin married.”
It was while working for Romney that Chmielewski met Trump. According to Chmielewski, Trump turned to Corey Lewandowski a few months before launching his own presidential bid in 2015 and asked, “Who was that Polack that used to work for Romney? He was a good guy.” Trump called Chmielewski, offered him a job, and Chmielewski spent the next 18 months at Trump’s side. He says he planned Trump’s trips, safeguarded his cellphone, fetched his McDonald’s (two Big Macs and two Fish Filets with fries), and delivered the voice-of-God announcement that signaled Trump’s entrance at campaign rallies: “Please welcome the next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump!”
Chmielewski didn’t agree with everything Trump campaigned on, but he liked Trump’s vow to drain the swamp and end the country’s forever wars. Mostly, as he looked out on the massive crowds flocking to Trump’s rallies, he felt like he’d boarded a rocket ship just before liftoff, and intended to ride it all the way to the end. After Trump won, Chmielewski was told he would have his pick of jobs. He would finally get to make some real money working in the federal government instead of slinking back home to Maryland again.
When the White House asked him to leave his first choice at DHS after a few months and move to the EPA, the decision was a “no-brainer,” he tells me. The EPA job paid more than DHS. He had grown up on the water and thought of himself as a conservationist, a surfer, and a waterman (“wutterman,” in his Eastern Shore accent), someone who cared about protecting the natural landscape. The EPA also had a lower profile than DHS, and, as best he could tell, no one knew who Scott Pruitt, the new administrator, was. “I work less and make more money,” he says. “I just found the perfect boring job.”
Chmielewski felt beyond exhausted when his flight landed at Reagan National airport in early February 2018. He’d spent the past 16 hours on planes returning home from an assignment on the other side of the world. Dressed in sweatpants and flip-flops, so tired he could hardly see straight, he called a cab to take him to EPA headquarters, and from there, he’d head home to the Eastern Shore to be with his wife and kids, whom he hadn’t seen in weeks.
He flashed his badge at the security guard posted at the EPA’s main entrance and walked to his car. When he got there, two agents were waiting for him, according to a whistleblower complaint he later filed. They said they’d been sent by Nino Perrotta, the head of Pruitt’s security detail, to retrieve Chmielewski’s EPA badge, work phone, and parking pass. Chmielewski knew something was wrong. But he wasn’t about to hand over his work credentials. He says he politely declined, and the two agents went on their way.
Soon afterward, Chmielewski got a call from Perrotta’s deputy. Turn around right now and come back to the office, he was told. “I’m going home,” Chmielewski said, and kept driving. A few minutes after that, he got another call, this time from Perrotta himself. “Get the fuck back here right now,” Chmielewski recalls Perrotta telling him.
“Excuse me?” Chmielewski responded. “Nino, have you lost your mind?”
“Get the fuck back here right now or I’m coming to your house.” (Perrotta says he called Chmielewski and asked for his credentials at this behest of his superiors, but says he never swore and that Chmielewski’s account of the conversation is “completely inaccurate.”)
Chmielewski was two months shy of his one-year anniversary at the EPA. It had been anything but a boring experience from the day he had arrived. Chmielewski was a key liaison between the EPA and the White House, and also between Pruitt’s office and the law-enforcement community, from the local cops who helped protect Pruitt on field visits, to the FBI and the EPA’s in-house intelligence bureau. He was also in charge of practically all logistics not only for Pruitt, he says, but also for Pruitt’s family.
As Chmielewski would later tell congressional investigators, he sensed trouble with Pruitt right away. Under the pretext of needing additional security measures to ensure Pruitt’s safety, the EPA acquired hulking, blacked-out SUVs. Habitually late, Pruitt had his security detail use lights and sirens to clear traffic as he tore through Washington, D.C., en route to dinner or a meeting. Pruitt insisted on flying first-class and when possible on Delta, because he was a frequent Delta customer, even though Delta was rarely the cheapest option and government regulations mandated that public servants spend as little as possible on travel. When the career employees at the EPA alerted Chmielewski to these issues, he dismissed them as Democrats bitter about a new Republican administrator. But the more he learned, the more he realized they were right. “It took me a very short time to realize they’re telling the truth.”
There were so many ethical problems created by Pruitt that it was hard to keep track of them all. Pruitt had one of his assistants look into potential real estate and a subscription to the private-plane service NetJets. He asked to rent and hang priceless paintings from the Smithsonian for his office. He sought to expand his security detail from a half-dozen agents to 20, and received round-the-clock protection, costing $3.5 million in his first year, nearly double what Pruitt’s predecessors paid. He placed good friends from Oklahoma in EPA advisory jobs while forcing out career scientists. Some of Pruitt’s abuses were so cartoonishly corrupt that they would later become the stuff of lore: asking aides to procure a mattress from the Trump hotel in Washington; making his detail drive him to multiple Ritz-Carlton hotels to find a hand lotion he liked; spending $43,000 on a secure phone booth in his office suite.
Pruitt had installed Perrotta as the head of his security detail after forcing out an official who had pushed back on Pruitt’s requests. Suddenly, the security presence around Pruitt grew dramatically, and career employees saw their access to Pruitt scaled back. Pruitt pushed to install a bulletproof desk in the administrator’s office. Paranoid about leaks and potential spying by his enemies, Pruitt asked for a security firm to sweep his office, and Perrotta recommended a contractor who also happened to work at the private-security firm Perrotta ran on the side. “Nino made it sound like this guy was going to be assassinated every 30 seconds,” Chmielewski recalls. (“Completely false,” Perrotta says.)
For a time, Chmielewski did as he was told, including participating in the firing of a junior employee who had allegedly refused to delete sensitive entries from Pruitt’s calendar. But he says he grew appalled by what he saw. He also recognized that, by virtue of his proximity to Pruitt, he was one of the few people privy to all of Pruitt’s wrongdoing. He started telling people he knew in the White House and in Trump’s orbit — the same people he’d grown close with while working on the presidential campaign — about what Pruitt was up to. He says he told trusted Trump advisers Lewandowski and David Bossie, the head of the White House personnel office, and two senior aides to Vice President Pence; senior EPA officials; and the EPA’s inspector general. He didn’t realize that by making these disclosures he’d made himself a whistleblower. All he knew was that Pruitt was out of control and he didn’t want anything to do with what Pruitt was doing. He’d been sent to the EPA to keep watch on Pruitt, but now it felt like his White House contacts and other Trump pals weren’t all that interested in the issues he was raising. Maybe his disclosures got lost in the day-to-day chaos of the Trump administration; maybe the White House really didn’t want to know about Pruitt’s wrongdoing. Plausible deniability.
Offered to work advance on a handful of overseas trips for the White House in late 2017 and early 2018, Chmielewski leapt at the chance to take a break from Pruitt and the mess at the EPA. Still, he continued to warn the White House about what he’d seen, even if it was just telling Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, over beers and pizza during an official trip to Israel. It was during these trips, Chmielewski says, that Pruitt learned about his whistleblowing and embarked on a campaign to discredit him and force him out of the EPA. An anonymous complaint was filed — Chmielewski believes Pruitt was behind it — with the EPA’s inspector general, saying Chmielewski didn’t have a security clearance but did have a criminal record; the IG investigated the complaint and found it to be baseless.
Chmielewski had just returned from one of his trips assisting the vice president’s office when the two agents confronted him in the EPA parking lot. When Chmielewski returned to the office the following Monday, February 12th, 2018, his key no longer worked and his nameplate was gone. Charles Munoz, the official White House liaison at the EPA, called Chmielewski into his office and handed him a resignation letter to sign. When he refused, he was escorted out of the building.
He found himself in a legal limbo. He hadn’t been fired, yet hadn’t resigned, either. For weeks he continued to collect a paycheck even though he wasn’t working. Officials in the White House pleaded with him to just resign. “We’re in a pinch here,” he remembers being told. “Do us a favor and we’ll try to get you to another agency. You need to resign.” Again, he refused. He’d done nothing wrong, he argued. He also thought about his young kids. “Right is right and wrong is wrong,” he says. “Especially at that time, being a new father and realizing 20 years down the road, when my kids asked me about it, I wanted to be on the right side of this.”
He refused to resign and accepted an invitation to appear in private before the House oversight committee. The committee’s Democratic staff members couldn’t have been more polite, he says, even putting him in touch with lawyers who could represent him as a whistleblower if he needed legal help. The tenor on the Republican side was different. “The entire conversation was, ‘You sure you want to do this?’ ” Chmielewski recalls. “Not ‘Hey, what happened?’ but ‘Why don’t you just leave this alone?’ ”
Once the media caught wind of his whistleblowing and testimony, Chmielewski was flooded with interview requests. He agreed to a few of them, with TV producers he knew and trusted from the campaign trail, then laid low at home, essentially unemployed and uncertain of his employment status at the EPA, until the furor subsided. The Government Accountability Project, a nonpartisan legal-defense group, agreed to represent him, and his lawyer there, Samantha Feinstein, peppered the EPA with inquiries about Chmielewski’s employment status. According to one of Chmielewski’s whistleblower complaints, his lawyers eventually obtained resignation documents in which Munoz had signed “Charles Munoz for Kevin Chmielewski” in the place where Chmielewski’s signature should have been. Munoz would later admit to the EPA’s inspector general that Chmielewski had never resigned.
Chmielewski and his daughter had gone to see the movie Incredibles 2 when Pruitt’s resignation was announced. With Pruitt out of the picture, he hoped he might find a way into the administration again. In early 2020, according to one of Chmielewski’s whistleblower complaints, Johnny McEntee, an old friend from the campaign who had taken charge of the White House’s personnel office, vowed to help him. McEntee found a position for him at the Department of Energy, which said it planned to hire him. But when McEntee tried to finalize Chmielewski’s paperwork, someone blocked it. Chmielewski suspects advisers close to Trump had blacklisted him. “There’s nothing I can do,” Chmielewski says McEntee told him. “My hands are tied because the job has been rescinded.”
Chmielewski now spends his days in a legal no man’s land. With the help of his lawyers, he challenged his termination with the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with whistleblower issues, and another administration office, called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Both offices said Chmielewski had no standing to appeal his firing, because as a senior political appointee, he had no statutory protections as a whistleblower. The law that protected career civil servants didn’t apply to him, even though he was one of the only people at the EPA who had the firsthand knowledge to expose Pruitt’s abuses.
Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, says so-called senior-executive service positions — political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president — come with more flexibility to pay higher salaries, but also with more leeway for an administration to remove appointees. But Hempowicz says cases like Chmielewski’s illustrate the need for even basic whistleblower protections for those appointees, so that they’re not hung out to dry if they speak up about potential wrongdoing. “It leaves an accountability gap that should be very concerning,” she says, “especially when you talk about people like Scott Pruitt, who are distrustful of civil servants and won’t let them in the room.”
Chmielewski’s legal team is pushing Congress to close the loophole for political appointees with a piece of legislation called the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act. At the same time, Chmielewski is waging several legal battles, alleging that the EPA and Energy Department illegally retaliated against him. He wants to be reinstated in his EPA job or given the position that had been rescinded at Energy.
He also filed a lawsuit in D.C. federal court, saying his First Amendment rights had been infringed upon. In both cases, the change of administration from Trump to Biden has made little difference in the position taken by the government. The Biden Justice Department has refused to consider a settlement in Chmielewski’s case, and instead argued that he has no whistleblower protections as a political appointee. “Many taxpayer dollars are being spent by the Biden administration fighting Kevin Chmielewski’s case,” says Feinstein, his lawyer at the Government Accountability Project. “This is someone who did the right thing and has suffered for it. The government benefited from his information and the public benefited from his information.” But the Biden Justice Department, she adds, has “literally zero to offer.”
Chmielewski has been cast out of the small, close-knit group of professional advance staffers. “If I was in their shoes, which I used to be, I wouldn’t hire me either,” he says. He’s tried to find work at a defense contractor or other government-related job, but he fears one Google search renders him unemployable. Over lunch one day at the restaurant, I ask him if he would do it all again knowing what he knows now. He tells me he doesn’t regret blowing the whistle. He’s long since grown disillusioned with Trump and his cronies: “We made the swamp bigger and put bigger creatures in there. I wasn’t going to be one of those creatures.”
The question that keeps him up at night, he says, is this one: “Where does this story end? Five years from now, 10 years, 20, 50?” He looks pained as he asks these questions. “Is that Kevin homeless? Or is that Kevin thriving and doing well?”