The Rationalist Papers (19): A cabinet of “the best people”

Illustration: New York Times

Why does Donald Trump have such difficulty retaining people in leadership positions?

In August of 2015, candidate Trump said “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people. We want top of the line professionals.”

Since then, turnover in the most influential positions in the executive office of the President has been 91%. The majority of leaders in the Trump cabinet have quit or been forced out.

Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservative, moderate, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Let’s take a look at not just who left, but why, to see what that reveals about the man who is asking for our votes this election.

A revolving door cabinet

My definition of “cabinet” here is the one that Trump himself uses: it includes not just the leaders of major cabinet departments like the Treasury and State Department, but also officials like the directors of the CIA, EPA, FBI, OMB (Office of Management and Budget), and the Small Business Administration, along with the Chief of Staff. I’ve also included the key positions of National Security Advisor and Press Secretary.

Here’s who left each of those positions and why. You may have noticed these when they were happening, but it’s startling to see them all together like this:

By comparison, Barack Obama’s first term was placid. Only two cabinet secretaries left (Gary Locke, Commerce Secretary, and Robert Gates, Defense Secretary, who was a holdover from George W. Bush). Neither resigned due to scandal. Three nominations were withdrawn. Two were for Commerce Secretary: Bill Richardson, for an investigation into political donors, and Judd Gregg, due to differences policy differences with Obama. Tom Daschle was nominated for Secretary of Health and Human Services but withdrew based on conflicts of interest. Obama’s first Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel left in 2010, and his budget director Peter Orszag left in 2010 as well.

Trump’s leadership positions displayed a historic level of turnover. The only important positions that have not turned over are the Secretaries of the Treasury, Agriculture, HUD, Transportation, and Education and the US Trade Representative.

What can we learn from this list?

There are a few people in the list whose exits are perfectly logical, like Mick Mulvaney choosing to be chief of staff and Nikki Haley stepping away from the UN Ambassador position. But the rest of these officials left because of:

  • Poor vetting. They were selected without consideration of events in their past that looked bad under the scrutiny of Senate hearings (e.g. Puzder, Shanahan, Acosta, Jackson).
  • Corruption. They behaved inappropriately while in office (Price, Shulkin, Zinke, Pruitt, Flynn).
  • Integrity. Their own desires to do what is right for the country conflicted with what Trump required them to do (Mattis, Sessions, Nielsen, Coats).
  • Trump’s questionable actions. They were put in untenable positions by investigations into Trump (Sessions, Perry, Comey).
  • Irreconcilable differences. They were unable to work with the President (Preibus, Kelley, Tillerson, Mattis, Coats, McMaster, Bolton).

No large organization could run well with this level of turmoil and disruption. It is hard for the employees of the Federal Government to do their jobs when their leaders are constantly changing.

This level of withdrawn nominations and senior leaders quitting, being forced out, and getting in trouble for corruption speaks to two things. First, it’s a highly consistent and measurable pattern of poor judgment on the part of the chief executive. And second, it’s a a reflection of the chaos, rapid changes, and undermining of subordinates that takes place in Trump’s White House, which makes it virtually impossible for leaders of parts of the government to do their jobs.

After four years, we have a pretty good idea of what Trump’s version of government is. Chaos is no way to run a government. The nation could use a little stability right now.

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  1. I am really enjoying this series. First, because it is focused with a purpose. Second, cause it reminds of what good discourse looks like: a stance, with facts laid out. Great work. I buy your book now for all my employees :).