Remember Sean Spicer, White House press secretary? He resigned after some testy encounters with the press. How about Hope Hicks, White House communications director? She resigned amid rising tensions in the administration. Then there’s “The Mooch”— otherwise known as Anthony Scaramucci. He was White House communications director for only 11 days before getting fired.
National Security Council staffer Rich Higgins? Booted. Staff secretary Rob Porter? Quit after allegations of domestic abuse. Omarosa? Resigned to return to her roots on reality television. If it seems like there’s been a ton of turnover at the White House, there has been. In fact, Trump’s White House has seen more turnover in its first year than the past five administrations. Is this cause for concern?
High staff turnover at the White House isn’t necessarily unusual. Newly inaugurated presidents often fill some spots in their administration with campaign staff and later replace them with more seasoned picks. But the sheer number of people leaving the Trump administration is unusual. According to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, the turnover at the Trump White House “is high, and it’s not just high, it’s off the charts.”
Tenpas compared turnover among the president’s most influential staff going back five administrations, “Since Reagan, the highest turnover rate during that first year was Ronald Reagan at 17 percent. [Trump’s] turnover rate during that first year was 34 percent. So he doubled the previous highest rate of turnover.” By comparison, the lowest rate of first-year turnover in a president’s first year was George W. Bush at 6 percent, while Obama had a turnover rate of 9 percent. So President Trump, with 34 percent, truly is extraordinarily high.
There are two potential factors contributing to this high turnover rate. First, on the campaign trail, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and put a premium on loyalty. So, much of his initial staff were campaign holdovers without government experience.
Another factor was Trump’s rocky first year in office. Warmongering against the dictator of North Korea, a bitter rivalry with the press, and — of course — the massive ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in American affairs created a hostile work environment.
According to Tenpas, this high rate of turnover has important ramifications for the functioning of federal government: “When a very senior level person leaves there’s often a domino effect in which some of his junior staffers will leave as well because the incoming person wants to build their own staff.” Then, of course, all these new hires need to be trained and brought up to speed, which puts pressure on other staffers who need to step in to pick up the slack.
And there are some aspects of the job that can’t merely be learned — “within the sample, the most senior people are leaving, and those people are even more difficult to replace. They tend to have a little bit more expertise. Oftentimes, they have close relations with the president and a good rapport with the president, and those kinds of qualities and skills are not easily replaceable.” All this results in a White House that is increasingly isolated and unable to pursue its goals.
It’s true that most of Trump’s departures happened early in his first year. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, of Trump’s 28 staff departures in 2017, 10 of them left in July of that month alone. These staff changes could be a way for Trump to change course in the face of low approval ratings and a stagnant legislative agenda. But with senior aides losing their security clearances, and rumors swirling about even more resignations, there’s no clear indication that the Trump administration is stabilizing.
“I think when you get to this high level of turnover, then that raises questions as to how well his staff can perform and how well they can advance his agenda. If the door keeps revolving, and people are in and out, in and out, you don’t have any institutional memory. You’re losing expertise that you had. And it just makes your job more difficult.”
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