White House Shakeups


The Trump White House isn’t the only administration with quick staff turnover

By: Clay Pasqual
Graphic: Lila Johnson

A photo of President Donald Trump meeting with his top advisers on Jan. 28 was widely circulated by national media outlets and on social media in the wake of the president’s mid-August firing of Steve Bannon, his chief strategist. In addition to Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence were in the photo. With the exception of Pence, all of them have been fired or resigned since Jan. 28.

Determining whether this series of departures from the White House is unprecedented depends on the position and the years within an administration being considered, as well as the political climate surrounding an administration

The most apparent instance in which the Trump White House has set a new mark for turnover is with the chief of staff. Priebus’ tenure as chief of staff barely exceeded half a year at 189 days, breaking the record previously held by Kenneth Duberstein, who served 203 days as chief of staff under Ronald Reagan. In contrast, Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, served 620 days and George W. Bush’s first chief of staff, Andy Card, served for over five years.

The tenure of Spicer as press secretary is also remarkably short compared to the previous two presidents. Spicer served for the first six months of the Trump administration, while both Obama and Bush’s first press secretaries served for over two years.

Laura Belmonte, a department head and professor of history at Oklahoma State University, contends that these departures and others happening early in Trump’s administration can be explained in part by the rigors of the campaign trail.

“I think it’s important that we keep in mind that a lot of these people that wind up in these jobs have preceded this by working in incredibly high intensity campaigns before [starting] these really stressful jobs, unrelenting hours, weekends and nights,” Belmonte said.

Turnover for White House advisers in general has increased over the past several presidential administrations leading up to Trump taking office. Professors Matthew J. Dickinson and Kathryn Dunn Tenpas wrote of the transformation of the presidential electoral process from “party-centered” to “candidate-centered,” explaining that as a result of this transformation, presidential campaign staffers find less appeal in working for national party organizations and instead seek White House staff positions if their candidate wins. Campaign skills, however, do not translate well to the compromise and coalition building necessary for effective governance.

“It’s not unusual to have attrition early in a president’s term because typically you recruit aides on the basis of their effectiveness and loyalty on the campaign trail and you appoint them to senior white house positions and then you find out governing is different from campaigning,” Dickinson said.

The phenomena that result in accelerated White House turnover can be seen in some of the firings and resignations that have occurred in the Trump Administration. Priebus was the head of the Republican National Committee and Bannon was chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign. During the campaign, Priebus and Bannon served as loyal surrogates for Trump, sticking with him even through what were considered the lowest moments of his campaign.

“Bannon was an ideal campaign strategist because he could simplify issues, he could turn complicated issues into black and white he was very good in expressing policy in large symbolic language but that kind of polemics and simplifying issues does not translate into being a very effective policy maker,” Dickinson said.

Priebus also struggled to adapt to the White House.

“Reince Priebus was suppose to be the bridge to the establishment Republican Party but wasn’t a particularly effective bridge and by all accounts he had very little control over Donald Trump,” Dickinson said. “He didn’t even have his respect.”

General Michael Flynn was also a campaign holdover who lasted only 24 days as national security advisor.

Presidential crises and scandals have prompted White House turnover in the past on a wider and more dramatic scale than seen in the Trump Administration thus far. Jimmy Carter fired five cabinet members over a two-day period in July 1979, an event referred to as “Carter’s Great Purge” by TIME Magazine as his administration struggled with inflation. Ronald Reagan experienced extraordinary turnover in his administration in 1987 during the Iran-Contra scandal, losing five cabinet secretaries and national security advisor John Poindexter, who played a key role in the scandal. Reagan also was compelled to part with his communications director Jack Koehler that year after less than two weeks on the job because of media revelations that he had been a member of a Nazi youth group as a child.

Such a short tenure makes the recent Anthony Scaramucci tenure as Trump’s press secretary seem less unprecedented.

Crises and scandals such as the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Trump campaign ties with Russia can potentially be tied to some of the turnover experienced by the Trump administration through their effect on the administration’s approval ratings. RealClearPolitics average of President Trump’s approval rating was 20 points lower than his disapproval rating on August 14, less than a week before Bannon was fired.

“If you start to have periods of low approval ratings, whether or not that is attending some sort of scandal, those tend to be periods where people leave,” Belmonte said. “That makes sense because if the president is looking for accountability for why he isn’t advancing his agenda, the first place he is likely to look is in his closest circle of advisers.”

Trump’s approval rating stood at a low 39.2 percent as of early October, according to the RealClearPolitics average. However, perhaps now that some of Trump’s campaign staffers have been replaced in his administration by more established Washington figures like General John Kelly as chief of staff, the administration will experience less turnover going forward.

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