WASHINGTON — Kathryn Dunn Tenpas has been keeping track of White House staff turnover since the late 1990s, but until President Donald Trump took the oath of office, the Brookings Institution senior fellow told the Review-Journal, “no one’s ever cared about it.”
Turnover in the Trump White House is, well, huge. The president loves to compare himself to his predecessor, and in this department, Trump exceeds President Barack Obama exponentially. In the first year of the Trump White House, turnover was more than triple that of Obama’s freshman year.
Already Trump has burned through four communications directors — five if you count Sean Spicer twice for his stints doing double duty as press secretary/comms director — as well as hired three national security directors — Mike Flynn, H.R. McMaster and John Bolton — and two chiefs of staff.
As a reality TV show host, Trump famously told contestants, “You’re fired.” Tenpas uses a different phrase to capture what it’s like to be canned from the Oval Office — RUP for “resigned under pressure.”
“It’s rarely one thing,” Tenpas explained.
Indeed, it’s a standard question when a cabinet member of staffer leaves as to whether the individual quit or was fired.
For one thing, the process of being shown the door can take weeks, months even. It starts with a leak about the president’s dissatisfaction with an individual. Then follows the denials, even presidential tweets damning said speculation as #fakenews. A week or so later, the gallows drop.
The spectacle makes so much noise that it drowns out the damage done by staff churn. Generally, a president’s first staff represents the A team — the best hires of a new executive — while their replacement picks — the B team — usually lack their predecessors’ star power.
“Either he doesn’t realize or he doesn’t care,” Tenpas said of Trump, but “it’s really undermining his agenda.”
The confirmation process eats up plenty of political capital in the Senate.
Consider CIA Chief Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to succeed unceremoniously dumped Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Pompeo is the exception to the replacement-as-B-lister scenario. To Washington, Tillerson always will be the remote corporate big-shot who hollowed out Foggy Bottom.
With his sterling credentials that include West Point and Harvard Law School, his background of military service, as a member of Congress and successful leader at Langley, Pompeo seems the perfect pick to bring talent back into the State Department while working with Trump to craft smart foreign policy.
In January 2017, the Senate confirmed Pompeo’s nomination by a vote of 66-32, with 14 Democrats crossing the aisle to support him and one Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, voting against him.
And yet Pompeo’s confirmation is not in the bag — as it should be given his qualifications, acceptability to Democrats just a year ago, and the nation’s need to have a powerhouse at State’s helm as Syria and Pyongyang threaten American national security.
After he fired Tillerson, Trump told reporters he felt “close to having the Cabinet and the other things I want.” Now it’s not completely clear he’ll get the top diplomat he wants.
And if Pompeo does make it, the road to confirm his successor as CIA chief, Gina Haspel, will be that much rockier. “You shouldn’t have to be going to the well over and over again,” Tenpas noted.
As of mid March, according to the Brookings tracker, 49 percent of Trump’s top 65 people had left their positions — because of an RUP, firing, resignation or promotion.
Trump has flirted with firing a number of Cabinet officials including his chief of staff, John F. Kelly. Worse, he’s let it be known he is thinking of not hiring a replacement.
Trump has not hired a replacement for his last communications director, Hope Hicks. He seems to think he can be president and dabble in other jobs that used to be prestigious.
“Who are the people who want these jobs now?” Tenpas asked. “How many people have walked out of there with their reputations intact?”