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:
- Chief of Staff. Reince Priebus left after 6 months, one of the shortest stints in history. John Kelly resigned because Trump became frustrated with the discipline he attempted to enforce.
- Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson was fired. It was difficult for him to run foreign policy when Trump made his own decisions independently, often communicating them on Twitter. He reportedly called Trump a “fucking moron.”
- Secretary of Defense. James Mattis resigned because he became frustrated with Trump undermining decisions about use of the military. Patrick Shanahan’s nomination was withdrawn because of a domestic violence incident.
- Attorney General. Jeff Sessions resigned at Trump’s request because Trump became frustrated with his unwillingness to defend Trump’s interests regarding investigations and to speed up the Mueller investigation of the president. (Investigations are supposed to be conducted without political interference.)
- Secretary of the Interior. Ryan Zinke resigned amid allegations of conflicts of interest in real estate deals.
- Secretary of Labor. Andrew Puzder was nominated but never confirmed after accusations of spousal abuse and hiring an undocumented worker. Alex Acosta resigned because of publicity about his role in the light sentencing of the child molester Jeffrey Epstein.
- Secretary of Health and Human Services. Tom Price resigned after racking up $400,000 in travel bills for charter flights and other spending abuses.
- Secretary of Energy. Rick Perry resigned after getting entangled in the Ukraine accusations that led to Trump’s impeachment.
- Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs. David Shulkin was forced out after accusations of improper gifts and travel and lying to cover it up. Ronny Jackson withdrew from nomination after a list of medically questionable decisions came to light.
- Secretary of Homeland Security. John Kelly resigned to become Chief of Staff. Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in the midst of controversy over Trump’s policy on asylum seekers at the border.
- Director of National Intelligence. Dan Coats stepped down after clashing with Trump on conclusions of intelligence findings that the president didn’t like.
- UN Ambassador. Nikki Haley resigned. Heather Nauert withdrew from nomination.
- OMB Director. Mick Mulvaney resigned to become chief of staff.
- CIA Director. Mike Pompeo resigned to become Secretary of State.
- EPA Administrator. Scott Pruitt left after accusations of lavish spending on his office and other scandals.
- SBA Administrator. Linda McMahon left to head up a PAC supporting Trump’s reelection.
- FBI Director. James Comey was fired, at least in part because he wouldn’t treat the Trump-Russia investigation as a “made up story.”
- National Security Advisor. Michael Flynn resigned after lying to VP Pence. H.R. McMaster resigned because of differences of style with Trump. John Bolton was ousted because of disputes over policy.
- Press Secretary. Sean Spicer quit when Trump hired Anthony Scaramucci as his boss, the Communications Director. (Scaramucci lasted only ten days in the job.) Sarah Huckabee Sanders resigned after dealing with the stress of continually justifying Trump’s decisions, statements, and tweets. Stephanie Grisham filled the position but never held briefings and resigned after 10 months.
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.