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Tracking turnover in the Trump administration

May 19, 2019 9:40 pm By

For the past two years, I’ve been keeping track of employee turnover in the Trump administration using a spreadsheet and an eagle eye on the latest news. While many media outlets have reported on this administration’s high turnover, I’m not aware of one that has logged every upper-level departure with the detail of my spreadsheet, The Trump Gov Tracker (Image 1). For example, some list only Cabinet-level departures; some have defined an “A-Team” and only track turnover in those positions; others track only Senate-confirmed positions. The differences in these lists illustrate the fact that there is a certain amount of subjectivity involved in tracking turnover: For instance, what positions are important enough to include? Will you only count positions that require Senate confirmation? Should career officials be included, or only political appointees?

Image 1. Screenshot of the Trump Gov Tracker spreadsheet

Before we begin…

The Trump Gov Tracker is made up of upper-level government officials. Campaign and transition members are not included unless they were formally hired by the Trump administration after the inauguration. “Upper-level” is hard to define, as it means something different depending on the agency or department that employed the individual. A general rule of thumb is that the people on the list were important enough for the media to notice their departure. This, however, highlights another problem with tracking turnover: where and how you get your information. I rely on the media to report personnel leaving the administration. If it is not reported, I cannot know about it and, thus, the individual’s departure will not be included in the list.

There are two more points to understand before jumping into the data. Occasionally a precise date could not be located. In these cases, I made an educated guess based on various clues, or I assigned the date to the middle of the month in which they were hired or in which they left. Finally, The Trump Gov Tracker only includes the position the individual held when they departed the administration. This means that if someone was on the Nation Security Council, became chief of staff, then quit, only their time as chief of staff would be counted. Ideally, all positions an individual held could be tabulated neatly. However, the limitations of working with a spreadsheet while still preserving the functionality of features like filter and sort preclude listing the same individual across multiple rows.

The Data

At the time of writing, The Trump Gov Tracker contained 430 individuals who have left the administration since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. 430 people across 850 days comes out to roughly one person leaving every two days on average. As we’ll see later, this daily average is slightly skewed by the committees and boards that either quit en masse or were disbanded by the president in one fell swoop.

Of the 430 departures, 195 (or 45.3%) were hired while Trump was in office. Some may argue that the list should only contain these 195 people, since the other 235 were hired by Trump’s predecessors. I disagree because an administration relies on experienced veterans of public service in order to train the new political appointees, ensure an orderly transition, and generally guide their department with their significant expertise. For this reason, I included officials who were not hired by Trump on my list.

  • Note: At the beginning of a president’s administration, it is normal for certain political appointees of the previous administration to be asked to resign – unless the situation was extraordinary, I did not include these individuals.

Of the 235 people not hired by Trump on the list, 26 departed in Trump’s first month in office. Five were fired; one was forced to resign due to differences in policies; the other 20 people were members of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who resigned in protest of Trump’s policies. The five fired individuals were longtime (30+ years) officials in the State Department sacked by Rex Tillerson. From this, we can conclude that very few of the 235 individuals hired under previous administrations departed the Trump administration under normal circumstances. Typically, officials to be replaced are notified during the transition, or at least during the first few days of the new administration.

Manner of departure

To classify how each person departed the administration, I used three categories: fired, resigned, and resigned under pressure (Chart 1). In addition, there was no information available on the manner in which three individuals left, resulting in an ‘unknown’ category. The majority of the people, 269 (62.6%), who left the administration did so by resigning. 96 (22.3%) of the departures are classified as resigning under pressure, meaning the official was pressured to resign, usually due to some controversy or scandal. Finally, 62 people (14.4%) were fired.

Chart 1. The manner in which officials left the Trump administration.

Departures by department

The Trump Gov Tracker contains departures across 52 departments and agencies. 9 of these are committees, like the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities, The American Manufacturing Council, and The President’s Strategic and Policy Forum (which was created by Trump for CEOs of giant companies). All three saw large resignations in protest of Trump’s Charlottesville comments blaming “both sides” for the violence that left one dead (Table 1). Of the 430 total departures, 129 (30%) served on committees.

Table 1. Mass departures from committees and councils of the Trump administration

White House

Of the remaining 43 departments and agencies, the White House itself has had the highest number of departures: 96 people, or 22.3% of the total list. 14 (14.6%) of these individuals were fired, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, and eight members of the National Security Council. 61 (63.5%) of the White House departures were resignations and 19 (19.8%) were resignations under pressure. Two White House officials left under unknown circumstances, both on the National Security Council and both at the end of April 2018. The shortest amount of time an individual hired by Trump lasted in the White House was 21 days: Gerrit Lansing, hired as the Chief Digital Officer, was forced to resign after failing to pass an FBI background check due to “investments.”

  • The high turnover at the Trump White House illustrates the struggle of finding employees to work for a volatile boss. Despite Trump’s claim that “everybody wants to work in the White House,” officials had to resort to a job fair in order to find candidates for employment. According to Politico, “a former Obama administration official said it would have been unheard of in the previous administration.”

Justice Department

The department with the second highest number of departures is the Justice Department, with 62 people or 14.4% of the total list. The majority of these individuals were U.S. attorneys fired all at once by AG Jeff Sessions at Donald Trump’s request. Of the remaining 18 officials, many were high profile departures, such as AG Jeff Sessions, Acting AG Sally Yates, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, Associate AG Rachel Brand, Associate Deputy AG Scott Schools, Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, Senior Counsel to the AG Matthew Whitaker, and Director of the FBI James Comey.

  • NPR characterized this high turnover as a “brain drain…at a time when it is under attack from President Trump and his allies in Congress.”

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State Department

Finally, the State Department has the third highest number of departures on the list: 33 people, or 7.7% of the total. Eight were fired, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The remaining 25 individuals, mostly ambassadors, resigned due to disagreements with Trump’s and/or Tillerson’s policies. The number of departures in the State Department would likely be higher if not for the large number of positions that have not been filled. For instance, as of January 2019 there were 70 Senate-confirmable positions out of 197, or 35.5%, unfilled in the State Department.

      • A 2018 article by Foreign Policy noted the State Department is facing a serious “brain drain” of sanctions experts, in particular. Rex Tillerson’s time as Secretary of State is memorable for the “parade[s] of dismissals and early retirements,” as well as the decline in moral.

Departures by position

Another way to think about turnover is to look at the positions that have had more than one person leave in the past 2+ years (excluding committees and councils).

Communications

Trump has famously had quite a few communications directors: five, in fact, making it the job with the highest turnover so far. In order from the beginning, the communications directors have been Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke, Anthony Scaramucci, Hope Hicks, and Bill Shine. The position has been vacant since Shine resigned to work on Trump’s re-election campaign on March 8, 2019. Scaramucci lasted the shortest time in the position at only 10 days, leading to the ‘mooch’ being used as a measurement of time.

      • Comparison: In Obama’s first two years, the White House had two communications directors. George W. Bush also only had two during his first two years in office. When expanded to the full two terms (eight years), Obama had five communications directors and Bush had four. Trump has had the same number of communications directors as Obama in only a quarter of the time.

Deputy Chief of Staff

The Deputy Chief of Staff position has had an even higher rate of turnover, but it is not reflected on The Trump Gov Tracker because a number of the individuals went on to hold a different position in the administration. According to the rules of the spreadsheet, four Deputy Chiefs of Staff have resigned or been fired in Trump’s administration: Jim Carroll, Rick Dearborn, Katie Walsh, and Joseph Hagin. However, Kirstjen Nielsen served in this position in 2017 before becoming Secretary of Homeland Security. Nielsen is therefore on the spreadsheet but under the last position she held. Finally, Zachary Fuentes was planning on resigning in early 2019, but I have not been able to find evidence that he has definitively left so he is not (yet) on the spreadsheet. In sum, counting the current Deputy Chiefs of Staff, Trump has had 9 different people fill the role (Table 2).

      • Comparison: During Obama’s eight years in office, only eight people served as Deputy Chief of Staff. Earlier administrations had even fewer, but partly because the overall number of Deputy Chiefs of Staff that served at one time was fewer.

Table 2. Deputy Chiefs of Staff in Donald Trump’s White House

Deputy National Security Adviser

Trump has had three Deputy National Security Advisers leave their position, none of which made it a full year. While K.T. McFarland’s failed ambassadorship is the most well-known story of the three, Mira Ricardel’s departure story may be more intriguing. First Lady Melania Trump reportedly had Ricardel fired following a comment she made about Mrs. Trump’s staff. Additionally, Trump has had two Deputy National Security Advisers for Strategy depart the administration, neither of which lasted a year on the job.

      • Comparison: In Obama’s eight years, he had four Deputy National Security Advisers. George W. Bush had three. Counting Charles Kupperman, currently serving the position, Trump has had four in a little over 2 years in office.

Director of ICE

There have been three acting-Directors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to leave their position. Trump’s first two acting-Directors of ICE, Thomas Homan and Daniel Ragsdale, were rather unmemorable. However, the most recent acting-Director, Ronald Vitiello, was nominated for the position but pulled by Trump in April 2019 because the president wanted the department to go “in a tougher direction.” As The New York Times reported, Vitiello was against the White House’s proposal to close the border.

      • Comparison: In Obama’s eight years, there were only five Directors of ICE, two of which were Senate confirmed (i.e. not acting-Directors). Trump has yet to have a Director of ICE be confirmed by the Senate. Counting the current acting-Director and the man nominated for the position, Mark Morgan, Trump has had five people in the position so far in only 2+ years.

Cabinet departures

One of the easiest ways to compare turnover between administrations is through their cabinet members. Trump has lost 14 people across 21 cabinet positions, meaning there has been a 66.6% turnover rate in the first 2+ years (Table 3). Note that this includes the Chief of Staff position as part of his cabinet, does not include the three failed nominations for cabinet positions, and does not count Mike Pompeo because he has shuffled position while still remaining in the cabinet.

      • There are differences between administrations that make direct comparison difficult. Obama did not include the Directors of the CIA and National Intelligence in his cabinet as Trump has. Likewise, Obama’s cabinet included the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, while Trump’s does not. With these adjustments, there are 21 positions in common between the Trump and Obama cabinets.

Table 3. The Trump administration’s cabinet-level departures

During Obama’s first two years in office, only four cabinet members departed: The Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Commerce, Chief of Staff, and Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Oddly enough, by the end of Obama’s first term, one person left each of the same four positions, resulting in eight cabinet member departures across four years. The rest of the positions in Obama’s cabinet stayed the same throughout his first term.

Using these numbers, Obama had a cabinet turnover rate of 19% in his first two years in office and 38.1% during his first four-year term. Trump has thus had more than double the cabinet turnover in two years as Obama had in four.

Acting cabinet

It is also worth briefly noting the high number of acting cabinet officials Trump has had. According to an analysis by The Washington Post in April found that “more than a fifth of Trump’s presidency has seen departments run by acting heads.” A department has been led by an acting director for 388 days on average (cumulative) in each of the years of Trump’s presidency. Compare this to Obama’s agencies, which spent about 150 cumulative days on average in each of the years of his presidency. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have even smaller figures: between 50-75 cumulative days on average.

      • According to NPR, this reliance on acting officials is troubling because it avoids public vetting: It “amounts to an end-around of the Senate, which under the U.S. Constitution has a role to advise and consent to the president’s appointments.”

Conclusion

The record high turnover of Trump’s administration is indicative of the chaotic and destructive nature of his presidency. With the help of some amazing volunteers, The Trump Gov Tracker was turned into a website: www.45chaos.com. The name was chosen because the ultimate purpose of the departures list is to quantify the disorienting experience of being a citizen of the United States under President Trump, when all norms are abandoned and our once-rock-solid institutions seem to be disintegrating before our eyes. My hope is that post-2020 we can look back on this list as a reminder of what can happen if we let apathy and disinformation infect our democracy.

Attribution: Feature image by axi11a is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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