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.
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.
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.”