The departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly at the end of 2018, announced Saturday, is just the latest confirmation that President Donald Trump burns through senior staff much faster than normal presidents.
Trump hasn’t yet been in office for two years, but many of his original picks for top White House positions (and sometimes even their first replacements) have either been fired, been bullied into resigning, or quit in protest.
This seems like a problem for any large organization — something that longtime business executive Donald Trump might have some experience with, and might even have been able to foresee as an issue.
Which, of course, he did. When the president in question was Barack Obama (and the problem of staff turnover wasn’t nearly as bad).
3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @BarackObama can’t manage to pass his agenda.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 10, 2012
Obama did have unusually high chief of staff turnover during his first term, which began in January 2009. His first chief, Rahm Emanuel, left in October 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago. Three months later (with staffer Pete Rouse serving as interim chief of staff in the meantime), Obama selected Bill Daley — who departed after a year in January 2012. He was replaced with Jack Lew, who served until January 2013 — the beginning of his second term. So depending on how you count, Obama had either three or four chiefs of staff during his first four years in office.
That was a lot in historical context — the previous 11 presidents, going back to the creation of the position in 1946 under Harry S. Truman, had had a combined 25 chiefs.
But Trump is still burning through chiefs of staff faster than Obama.
Trump’s been in office for less than 23 months. By this point in the Obama administration — December 2010 — Obama hadn’t even picked Daley yet. Trump has already selected, alienated, and cast aside two chiefs of staff: Kelly and Reince Priebus, the chief he replaced unceremoniously after barely six months. (That doesn’t even include Steve Bannon, whose official title was “chief strategist” but who was appointed to serve as an equivalently senior staffer to Priebus.)
Even if you count Obama interim chief Pete Rouse as a chief of staff who was ousted after three months — which is how Trump gets to three chiefs of staff in the tweet — Trump will have to hold on to his next chief of staff for over a year not to beat Obama’s pace. And as the president becomes increasingly mercurial and assertive, that’s not at all certain.
If you really want to talk about turnover, let’s talk about turnover
While Obama’s cabinet was generally stable through his first term, Trump’s chief of staff turnover barely scratches the surface of constant White House churn and turmoil.
Consider the fact that Trump is now on his second secretary of state (Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo); his third national security adviser (Mike Flynn, HR McMaster, and John Bolton); his second secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services (Tom Price and Alex Azar); and his second EPA administrator (Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler). He’s just nominated his second UN representative (Nikki Haley and Heather Nauert), though Nauert won’t serve as a Cabinet-level official.
By Trump’s methodology of counting interim officeholders, he’s on his third VA secretary (David Shulkin, Peter O’Rourke and Robert Wilkie) and will be on his third attorney general (after Jeff Sessions and Matt Whitaker), should William Barr be confirmed by the Senate.
And then there’s the intra-White House turnover that has given him two press secretaries (Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders) and five White House communications directors (Spicer, Mike Dubke, Anthony Scaramucci, Hope Hicks, and Bill Shine). And the fact that Trump has removed both the chief of the FBI (James Comey) and the head of the Federal Reserve (Janet Yellen) for dubious reasons.
That’s a lot! It might be enough to thwart a president’s agenda. Indeed, the constant reality-show drama of Trump’s White House has routinely overshadowed the things his government has actually accomplished or tried to accomplish — much to the frustration of Republicans in Congress, who blamed their defeat in the midterm elections in part on Trump’s refusal to talk up their legislative achievements.
The reason for the staff churn, of course, is that Trump is increasingly refusing to listen to anyone outside his own instincts. Apparently that includes the past counsel of Donald Trump himself.