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Rex Tillerson is latest casualty in Trump’s record-breaking turnover

March 13, 2018 at 10:29 AM

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President Trump set a record for White House staff turnover in the first year. Here's an ongoing list of White House staff, Cabinet members, and federal appointees who quit or were fired under Trump. (Joyce Koh/Washington Post)

In a surprise move Tuesday, President Trump dismissed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to replace him with CIA director Mike Pompeo, shaking up once again the administration’s major players.

The president has defended his record-breaking turnover, asserting that the shuffle reflects a high standards for staffing — and blasting claims that a revolving door of talent hinders his mission.

“The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House,” Trump tweeted recently. “Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”

With the departure of top economic adviser Gary Cohen last week, the share of Trump’s top staffers who have left or changed jobs, reached 43 percent — almost triple Barack Obama’s at the end of his second year as president (15 percent) and 16 percentage points higher than George W. Bush’s over the same period (27 percent), according to new data from the Brookings Institution. (This figure does not include Tillerson.)

“It’s not just unprecedented,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political historian who has tracked White House turnover for two decades. “I would call it off the charts.”

During Trump’s first year as president, 34 percent of his “A” team, or senior staffers who work in the White House and other high offices, quit, switched roles or were forced out, per Tenpas’s numbers. (One famous example: Anthony Scaramucci, the communications director who lasted about 10 days.)

Obama’s first-year rate was 9 percent, for comparison, while Bush’s was 6 percent and Bill Clinton’s was 11 percent. Ronald Reagan held the previous record at 17 percent.

President Trump announced Dec. 20 that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would leave his position in February, marking the departure of an influential figure who has steered the Trump administration toward foreign policy continuity and restraint. Mattis’s departure would add new uncertainty to which course the administration might take on its global challenges, including Iran and North Korea, amid questions about the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and a possible drawdown in Afghanistan. Read the story
Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignation to the White House on Dec. 15, after facing intense pressure to step down because of multiple probes tied to his real estate dealings in Montana and conduct while in office. President Trump announced Zinke’s exit via Twitter and offered praise for the embattled Interior chief. Read the story
President Trump said Dec. 8 that White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly will leave his post by the end of the year, capping the retired Marine general’s rocky tenure as the president’s top aide and marking another personnel change in a White House dominated by departures. “John Kelly will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring.’ But, he’s a great guy,” Trump said on the South Lawn of the White House. “John Kelly will be leaving toward the end of the year, at the end of the year.” Read the story
Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned on Nov. 7 at President Trump’s request, ending the tenure of a loyalist he soured on shortly after Sessions took office in 2017 because the former senator from Alabama had recused himself from oversight of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Read the story
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is stepping down at the end of 2018, President Trump announced as Haley sat by his side in the Oval Office. Trump praised the work of the former governor of South Carolina, who was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations shortly after Trump’s inauguration last year. Haley told the president that her resignation would be effective in January 2019 to “give you time to select a replacement and to give the Senate time to consider your selection.” Read the story.
Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who relentlessly pursued President Trump’s promises of deregulation at the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned after a cascade of controversies over his lavish spending, ethical lapses and controversial management decisions finally eroded the president’s confidence in one of his most ardent Cabinet members. Pruitt’s reputation as a dogged deregulator and outspoken booster of the president allowed him to weather a litany of ethics scandals in recent months, including questions about taxpayer-funded first-class travel, a discounted condo rental from a D.C. lobbyist and the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office. Read the story.
White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert is leaving the Trump administration, another departure during what has been a chaotic few months of personnel changes. Bossert, a favorite of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is leaving one day after national security adviser John Bolton began the job. Read the story
President Trump ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, after turmoil in the agency’s senior ranks generated weeks of unflattering headlines, nominating his personal physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson as his replacement. Shulkin’s firing had been expected as the president, who once considered him a favorite, grew disenchanted with him after a travel scandal and months of infighting within the senior ranks at the Department of Veterans Affairs spilled into public view. Read the story
President Trump said in a tweet that he was naming John Bolton — a former U.N. ambassador, Fox News commentator and conservative firebrand — as his new national security adviser, replacing Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster who came to the Trump administration with a reputation as one of the Army’s best thinkers, but he never forged the kind of bond that would allow him to speak honestly to the president. Read the story
Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI deputy director Andrew Mc­Cabe, a little more than 24 hours before McCabe was set to retire — a move that McCabe alleged was an attempt to slander him and undermine the ongoing special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign. Sessions announced the decision in a statement, noting that both the Justice Department inspector general and the FBI office that handles discipline had found “that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.” Read the story
President Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him as the nation’s top diplomat. Read the story
Top economic adviser Gary Cohn is leaving the White House after breaking with President Trump on trade policy. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, has been the leading internal opponent to Trump’s planned tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum, working to orchestrate an 11th-hour effort in recent days to get Trump to reverse course. But Trump resisted those efforts, and reiterated he will be imposing tariffs in the coming days. Read the story
White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of President Trump’s longest-serving and closest political advisers, said that she is leaving the administration. Hicks, 29, began working for Trump before he announced his candidacy and has been a constant at his side over the past three years, managing his public image and advising him on policy and other matters. Read the story
White House staff secretary Rob Porter, right, said that he would resign after his two ex-wives accused him of physical and emotional abuse, with one presenting pictures of her blackened eye. Porter’s title belied the role’s importance in any White House — but especially in President Trump’s. Porter functioned as Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s, left, top enforcer in their shared mission to instill discipline and order in what had become an extraordinarily chaotic West Wing. Read the story
Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former reality TV star who joined President Trump’s White House as one of his most prominent African American supporters, resigned under pressure after a confrontation with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that ended when she was escorted from the premises, White House officials said. Read the story.
Tom Price, President Trump’s embattled health and human services secretary, resigned amid sharp criticism of his extensive use of taxpayer-funded charter flights, the White House said. The announcement came shortly after Trump told reporters he considered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics” and planned to make a decision by the end of the day. Read the story.
President Trump dismissed his embattled chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, an architect of his 2016 election victory, in a major White House shake-up after a week of racial unrest, according to administration officials. Read the story.
Anthony Scaramucci was fired as White House communications director on July 31, a few days after the wealthy New York financier was named to the job. He was let go reportedly at the request of new White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Read the story.
Trump abruptly announced on July 28 that he was appointing Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to be his chief of staff, ending the tumultuous six-month tenure of Reince Priebus, shown above. Read the story.
Trump’s decision to install Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director, set off a chain reaction, with press secretary Sean Spicer resigning in protest on July 21, according to people familiar with the departure. Read the story.
Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9. Comey was leading a counterintelligence investigation to determine whether associates of Trump coordinated with Russia to interfere with the U.S. presidential election last year. Read the story.
Preet Bharara said he was fired as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York as part of an ouster of U.S. attorneys who were with President Barack Obama’s administration, according to people familiar with the matter. Read the story.
Michael Flynn, national security adviser, resigned Feb. 13 over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Read the story.
Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates on Jan. 30 after she ordered Justice Department lawyers not to defend his immigration order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. Read the story.
Photo Gallery: Twenty-four notable officials, from Jim Mattis to Sally Yates, have quit or been fired.

The spotlight glared on White House turnover last week after Cohn announced his departure. His exit followed Hope Hicks, who left the communications team in February, as well as staff secretary Rob Porter, who stepped down the same month amid allegations of domestic violence.

Through it all, Trump stuck to his stance.

“Everybody wants to work in the White House,” he said this week at a White House news conference. “They all want a piece of that Oval Office. They want a piece of the West Wing. And not only in terms of, it looks great on their resume — it's just a great place to work.”

Experts say the churn is unlikely to slow, since turnover tends to increase during a president’s second year, when campaign brains tire of office jobs or leave for more lucrative roles beyond the administration.

Democratic staffers have a habit of moving on to universities or nonprofits, said Tenpas, who started tracking White House staffers during the Clinton administration. Republicans generally land in high-paying corporate jobs.

President Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers about trade policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Feb. 13. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Thus far, Trump’s pattern breaks convention. His former marquee employees — Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Stephen K. Bannon and, yes, Scaramucci — have not climbed into cushier positions with the White House on their résumés.

Priebus, the former chief of staff, went back to his old law firm. Spicer, the past press secretary, nabbed a Harvard University fellowship but no permanent role. Bannon isn’t publicly tied to any prominent organizations these days. Scaramucci tried to launch a news site that fizzled out (and will soon appear on “Dr. Phil” to discuss how his brief Washington job pummeled his marriage).

Contrary to Trump’s stance, a White House stint doesn’t necessarily elevate your career, Tenpas said, and mounting resignations could make it harder for the president to advance his agenda.

“There’s a domino effect,” she said. “They’re not replacing people with much speed, and existing staffers have to shoulder more of the burden.”

The risk for burnout grows, she added, which can accelerate turnover.

Chase Untermeyer, who worked on personnel matters for George H.W. Bush’s administration before becoming ambassador to Qatar, said every White House faces staffing changes. The turnover rate between leaders, he pointed out, is “100 percent,” and some workers struggle to adjust to the intense new environment.

But Trump’s rate is an outlier he called “disorienting.”

“Departures create uncertainty: What do we do next? Who is the boss? What does the new boss think of me? Do they want to keep me?” Untermeyer said. “Lots of people asking those questions creates a more generalized sense of uncertainty, which is unhealthy.”

A spokeswoman for the White House referred The Washington Post to comments made Wednesday by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“This is an intense place, as is every White House,” she said, “and it’s not abnormal to have people come and go.”

The White House is a unique organization. The rules of the broader world don’t always apply. In business, however, high turnover is a beast to avoid.

Companies say quitters are expensive. Productivity dips when a specially trained asset is lost. Some firms go as far as monitoring workers' LinkedIn activity to identify and then mollify flight risks, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Kim Ruyle, part of the Society for Human Resources talent acquisition expertise panel, a consultancy that helps employers attract and keep people, said turnover begets more turnover.

“When other people are jumping ship, it does tend to have that demoralizing impact,” he said.

Unexpected transitions, in particular, he said, stir up turmoil.

In Trump’s White House, the most staff disruption happened in four areas: the office of the Chief of Staff, the Office of Communications, the Press Office and the National Security Council, according to Tenpas’s research. In all, 28 workers of 65 have moved roles.

“So many changes at the top,” she wrote, “no doubt made it extremely difficult to create and maintain a high performing office.”

Read more:

Trump tried to save their jobs. These workers are quitting, anyway

Half of millennials could be competing with robots for jobs

Bosses believe your work skills will soon be useless


Danielle Paquette is a reporter focusing on national labor issues. Before joining The Washington Post in 2014, she covered crime for the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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