As a reality TV star, President Donald Trump’s catchphrase was “you’re fired.” In his White House, Trump’s penchant for pushing out senior staff and cabinet officials has resulted in the highest turnover in any presidential administration in four decades.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Tuesday became the second cabinet officer after Tom Price of Health and Human Services to be forced from his job, adding to a lengthy list of quick exits.
“No one has ever seen anything like this,” said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy White House press secretary to President George W. Bush. “It’s bewildering.”
Trump also fired FBI Director James Comey, pushed Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe into retiring, and privately threatened to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he reportedly derides as “Mr. Magoo.”
The White House staff has seen a dizzying pace of departures, including Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and deputy chiefs of staff Rick Dearborn and Katie Walsh.
Trump has had two White House press secretaries, four communications directors, and two chiefs of staff. Just last Monday, Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee, was fired and escorted out of the White House, reportedly in such haste that he left without his jacket.
Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public affairs, asked to explain Tillerson’s firing, said Tuesday that Tillerson was “unaware” why he was dismissed and did not speak to Trump before Trump announced Tillerson’s firing via tweet. In reply, the White House promptly fired Goldstein.
A study produced by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow with Governance Studies with the Brookings Institution in Washington, shows that during Trump’s first year as president, 34 percent of his senior White House staff left compared to 17 percent for Reagan’s first year, 11 percent of President Bill Clinton, and 9 percent for President Barack Obama.
By contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the turnover rate for the entire U.S. workforce last year was just 3.6 percent.
“Some turnover in the White House is healthy,” Tenpas said. “You definitely want to be able to get rid of poor performers, move people around and promote from within. But when turnover gets to be this high, then it raises questions about morale in the building. It clearly creates disruption and puts a burden on the people left behind.”
C. Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in South Carolina, said such turbulence impacts civil servants as well, calling the sweeping changes “disruptive.”
“And while it probably works for the president in his world, most people — and my sense is most people in the federal bureaucracy — do not really function all that well with constant disruption,” she said.
In some cases, those left behind are asked to pick up additional tasks. Joe Hagin, a native Ohioan and childhood friend of Sen. Rob Portman, lasted all eight years of the George W. Bush administration.
In the Trump administration, Hagin is serving in two capacities: As deputy chief of staff for operations and as director of scheduling. Either, Tenpas said, would typically be considered a full time job in and of itself. Other staff, she said, have also been asked to double and even triple up their workload.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio, said the concerns over the turnover extend well beyond staff morale, saying it is “making it harder and harder for U.S. allies abroad to take us seriously.”
Although Trump swiftly said he would nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, Brown said he has “serious concerns over whether Mike Pompeo is right person for the job.”
Tillerson was widely regarded as ineffective by critics, and Trump did not hide his disappointment in him. But his abrupt dismissal reinforced growing alarm among analysts that former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was right during the GOP primary campaign when he warned Trump would “be a chaos president.”
“Even on one of the most pressing diplomatic issues of the Trump presidency — North Korea — Trump has undermined Tillerson publicly,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director for the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, adding that “Trump seems committed to doing things on his own, without the input of the State Department. All indications are he accepted the face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un with little input from his diplomatic corps.”
During an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, Portman, R–Ohio, tried to downplay any turbulence from the Tillerson departure, saying “Pompeo has got the respect at the State Department, but also on the Hill.”
But he added: “Tillerson has done a good job. He comes to the Foreign Relations Committee and talks to us frequently, and I wish him well.”
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