Who’s Next to Go? Tracking the Trump Administration’s High Turnover
Within seconds of learning that embattled U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas raced to her computer to update her ongoing research.
“The pace is record-setting. It’s off the charts,” said Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, who has been tracking White House turnover rates over the past three decades. “There seems to be this revolving door.”
Acosta is the ninth high-ranking, senior-level Cabinet member within President Donald Trump’s administration to leave their position, one more than the previous high of eight under President George H.W. Bush.
More than one quarter of those departures have had what Dunn Tempas calls “serial turnover” or more than one cycling in personnel. And many of those departures under Trump—including Acosta—were instances in which the official resigned under pressure. In Acosta’s case, his role as a federal prosecutor in South Florida in the controversial 2008 plea agreement with wealthy financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The other eight high-ranking secretaries who have left include Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin, attorney general Jeff Sessions, secretary of defense Jim Mattis, and secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke. There’s also secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as the person she replaced, John Kelly, who left Homeland Security to become the White House chief of staff—and then left that position.
Zinke and Price left amid scandals, including misusing government funds, while Tillerson was out after reportedly calling Trump a “moron.”
The Homeland Security and Defense departments currently have acting heads, which come at a time when Trump is battling a migrant crisis at the U.S. southern border and expected deportation raids across the country.
“I like ‘acting’ because I can move so quickly,” Trump told CBS’ Face The Nation in February, reiterating comments he first said a month earlier. “It gives me more flexibility.”
Dunn Tenpas said Trump has a high number of acting Cabinet members to avoid Senate confirmation for some posts. But that uncertainty can foster an unstable White House.
“Trump sort of justifies having acting heads, but that’s not good for his administration,” she said. “It becomes very difficult to advance any of the administration’s goals.”
3 Days in April
While turnover in the Trump administration is seemingly the norm, it took on a rather strange precedent with a three-day stretch this spring.
On April 7, Nielsen resigned from Homeland Security, reportedly under pressure from Trump. The next day, Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles left his post supposedly after a security breach at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
On April 9, Claire Grady, the acting second-in-command at Homeland Security, announced she was resigning.
And on April 10, Ron Vitiello, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was gone.
A Revolving Door
The constant influx compounds an already steep learning curve for department heads who have to forge relationships with Congress and oversight committees to push their agendas. And once those heads are gone, either by choice or forced out by Trump, their replacements likely have to reestablish those relationships.
“They already have to learn the job on the fly as I would argue that all of this turnover is not conducive,” Dunn Tenpas said.
Also, it’s tough to figure out the exact number of people in the Trump administration who have left, Dunn Tenpas said.
“It’s difficult to get a hard number because there are so many lower-level staff members and there’s no authoritative source on who’s working at the White House,” she said. “It’s hard to know the total number of staff resignations.”
Still, the turnover is “corrosive,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist, and political commentator. “Normally, a White House staff can protect a president from mistakes but not in this case with Trump’s thumbs-on management style.”
So, who’s next to go?
Dunn Tenpas thinks after Acosta’s departure, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, could be shown the door after the recent biting defeat in the Supreme Court on adding a citizenship question to next year’s census.
“He might have his head on the chopping block,” Dunn Tenpas said about Ross’ fate. “Trump is so unpredictable, and, that’s just the way he likes it.”
The turnover for non-Cabinet senior officials in the Trump administration is currently at 74% as of July 8. These departures include the likes of former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.