Already setting turnover records, President Donald Trump’s White House is bracing for even more staff departures and an increasing struggle to fill vacancies, shadowed by the Russia probe, political squabbling and Trump’s own low poll numbers.
Entering a gruelling year that is sure to bring fresh challenges at home and abroad, Trump faces a brain drain across a wide swath of government functions, threatening to hamstring efforts to enact legislation or conduct even basic operations. Some departures are expected to come from senior ranks — the staff churn that makes headlines — but more are likely among the lesser-known officials who help to keep the White House and Cabinet agencies running.
In Trump’s first year, his administration’s upper-level officials have had a turnover rate of 34 percent, much higher than any other in the past 40 years, according to an analysis by Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The study found that 22 of the 64 senior officials she tracked have resigned, been fired or reassigned.
‘This is very unusual’
Anecdotal evidence among more junior officials – the White House wouldn’t release data – suggests similar departure rates, and White House aides acknowledge difficulty filling roles in the administration.
The presidency with the next-highest first-year turnover rate was Ronald Reagan’s, with 17 percent of senior aides leaving in 1981. And Trump’s first-year rate is three times Bill Clinton’s 11 percent and Barack Obama’s 9 percent.
“This is very unusual. It’s significant because the prior administration that had the greatest turnover was Reagan and Trump doubled it,” Dunn-Tenpas told AP. “Moreover, there are more senior-level departures, including the chief of staff [Reince Priebus], the press secretary [Sean Spicer] and the national security adviser [Michael Flynn].”
In a Wall Street Journal interview, Dunn-Tenpas suggested that one of the reasons for those departures could be the lack of experience from Trump and the people around him.
‘Trump is all about results’
Some observers point out that White House turnover is common and can have beneficial effects. In a 2002 Brookings Institute report, Dunn Tenpas and Matthew J. Dickinson noted that, upon taking office, presidents tend to appoint campaign staffers as aides – as Trump did. “Once elected, however, presidents discover that staffs dominated by campaign specialists are not typically well suited for operating within a bargaining-based governmental system of separate institutions sharing powers,” the report says. These former campaign aides then tend to be replaced with more experienced staff, Dunn Tempas and Dickinson pointed out.
Meanwhile, some analysts argue that some of Trump’s well-known personnel changes, such as replacing Priebus with John Kelly and Flynn with H.R. McMaster, were for the better.
“Donald Trump is all about results, and if he thinks things are going positive and well, I think that redounds to the team,” said Trump friend Chris Ruddy, head of the conservative news site NewsMax, who spent time with the president in Florida over the holidays, in an interview with AP. “But if the approval numbers don’t improve, I think he’ll make changes to improve things. That’s his way.”
Kelly behind much of the turnover
Much of the staff turnover in recent months was driven by John Kelly, who began his tenure as chief of staff by cracking down on internal rivalries and dismissing attention-seeking aides like Omarosa Manigault-Newman.
Kelly has already quietly tapped Jim Carroll as deputy chief of staff, replacing Kirstjen Nielsen, the new Homeland Security secretary. Marc Short, head of legislative affairs, has also expanded his portfolio. Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn is expected to leave the West Wing in coming months.
Other aides who are leaving — including deputy national security adviser Dina Powell — have not been forced out, but rather are departing around the one-year mark, a relatively common practice in other White Houses. Powell is to be replaced by Nadia Schadlow, a confidante of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster who oversaw the president’s first National Security Strategy document.
Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, praised Kelly for creating a more cohesive team and said that hiring sluggishness was to be expected.
“President Trump has earned the right as an outsider to create an outsider White House,” Fleischer told AP. “I don’t begrudge him turning his back on the Washington establishments. It’s time for new people.”
Indeed, more high-profile changes may be on the horizon.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose relationship with Trump has proved fraught, has long been rumored to be on the way out, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo discussed as a likely replacement. Both Trump and Tillerson have publicly denied he is leaving.
Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, may depart after helping steer the tax bill to victory.
‘An outsider White House’
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders plays down talk of turnovers.
“I have no reason to know of any personnel change whatsoever,” Sanders said Thursday. “And we’re moving full force ahead into 2018 to make sure we get a lot accomplished.”
From the start, the administration struggled to find highly qualified candidates across the administration, largely owing to the president’s unpopularity with the Washington political class. A spate of nominees for sub-Cabinet jobs and judicial appointments have been forced to back out over ethics concerns or because they were so unqualified even Republican lawmakers objected to their appointments.
Others have been spooked by the ongoing Russia investigation, or widely documented stories of internal strife and dysfunction, while a number of qualified candidates have been ruled out because they opposed Trump during the 2016 campaign.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
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