In the past two weeks, the West Wing under President Trump has looked more like a revolving door than an optimally functioning office; three resignations and two new staff hires within ten days have drawn criticisms that the White House is abnormally chaotic and disorganized. But is it?
According to National Journal’s method of analyzing staff turnover, if Trump’s first year ended tomorrow, his current staff turnover rate would be in step with the average since Ronald Reagan. In an issue of their magazine called “Decision Makers,” National Journal looked at staffers from Reagan’s presidency through to Barack Obama’s. They identified the most influential ones as the “A” team and noted when (or if) each staffer left the White House. National Journal has ceased printing “Decision Makers,” but Brookings in 2013 offered a compelling analysis of the data available to that point.
The emphasis on influence instead of position means that each president has a different number of staffers on his “A” list: Since the first issue of “Decision Makers,” the “A” team listing numbered 60 for Ronald Reagan, 70 for Bill Clinton, 63 for George W. Bush, and 53 for Barack Obama. The average turnover rate at the end of each president’s first term is 72 percent, meaning that an average of 44 staffers leave the White House in the first four years.
Seven high-level staffers have moved, resigned, or been fired from the Trump administration, following NJ’s method, which excludes rollovers from previous administrations and most positions requiring Senate confirmation, and focuses on staffers who are influential on policy or reelection strategy: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, Communications Director Mike Dubke, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Deputy Communications Director Michael Short, and Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
Using the average of the four “A” lists, 11 percent of Trump’s key decision-making staff has shuffled through the White House, matching Clinton’s first-year losses and only exceeding the first-year average by 0.25 percent. Furthermore, the report notes that Reagan, Clinton, and Bush lost most of their staff in the first half of their first terms, with only Obama losing a majority in the second half. This suggests that early turnover while establishing and developing a White House staff is common in modern administrations, and history may look back on these firings as the ushering-in of a new Trump era.
The NJ method doesn’t record when during the year the staff person departs, but it’s notable that seven departures have occurred within the first seven month of the Trump administration. Ari Fleischer and Robert Gibbs, George W. Bush and Obama’s first press secretaries, respectively, lasted more than two years, and only two other presidents’ press secretaries departed earlier than Spicer: Jonathan W. Daniels, who was a holdover from FDR when Harry Truman took over; and Jerald terHorst, Gerald Ford’s infamous 31-day press secretary, who left in protest of Ford’s Richard Nixon pardon.
The earliest departure of a chief of staff was Reince Priebus’s, who left after 192 days. The next-earliest was Mack McLarty’s: He left the Clinton administration after serving 543 days. The shortest chief-of-staff tenure overall is James Baker’s 150 days in George H. W. Bush’s administration, but he didn’t depart; Bush’s term simply ended in January 1993.
Though Obama’s communications director, Ellen Moran, left after 91 days, she still lasted longer than Trump’s first, Mike Dubke, whose term spanned just 88 days. The next-earliest departure is Frank Ursomarso’s, who served under Reagan for 114 days.
When considering this data, it’s important to remember that most presidents have had one or two relatively early departures, where Trump has had several. Given the reasons for Trump staffers’ departures — an apparent inability to work with colleagues and onerous involvement in investigations — terHorst’s exodus from Ford’s White House doesn’t seem so infamous anymore.
If Trump doesn’t learn from presidents like Barack Obama, who also had trouble keeping staffers in the White House, he’ll be remembered as chaotic.
Obama’s administration, notorious for having an exceedingly high rate of late-term staff turnover, should provide a lesson for Trump. By the week before Trump’s inauguration, Obama saw 20 cabinet departures — six fewer than FDR did in twelve years — and the movement or resignation of countless other aides and staffers. Even the Huffington Post couldn’t ignore it, publishing an article in 2014 attempting to explain away “a year of goodbyes at the White House.”
Dedicated followers of the Obama staff exodus will recall that none of his 15-member cabinet remained for both terms, leaving him with 17 departures for his second term and an attrition rate of 1.13, which is the number of seats to fill divided by the number of cabinet positions. According to University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog, authored by Eric Ostermeier, that makes Obama’s second-term rate the second-worst since FDR’s, when Ostermeier began analyzing the data. In fact, the terms adjacent to Obama’s second-worst rate are Gerald Ford’s, at 1.09, and Harry Truman’s first, at 1.36. (Ostermeier notes that Truman and Ford each inherited his predecessor’s cabinet in the middle of his term.)
The Guardian, in October 2010, offered another way to analyze the overall Obama-staff reshuffling, including non-cabinet members, using language familiar to any Trump supporter today: Dropping approval ratings, stagnated legislative progress, general discomfort among the staff, and infighting. Ewan MacAskill writes:
Obama’s popularity in opinion polls has dropped from 70% last year to the mid-40s this year, so a reshuffle offers an opportunity to reverse that trend and to change economic and foreign policies and political strategy. Regular staff changes were not uncommon during the Bill Clinton presidency and those of his predecessors, but this exodus is unusual in that it is happening before the result of the mid-term elections, when staff reshuffles normally take place.
In a blog on the Politico website, Alvin Felzenberg, the presidential historian and author of The Leaders We Deserved, writes: “These departures are a reflection of Obama’s leadership style. Why he has such a difficult time earning and retaining the loyalties of people outside his circle of intimates is anyone’s guess.”
Trump is facing similar issues, including declining approval ratings, and it may be possible that his shuffling has something to do with that. Even Vox, a major Trump critic, seems to support the argument that changes are a normal part of political policy:
All of this is clearly born of the president’s frustration with how his administration has gone so far. Trump is unpopular, his legislative agenda has stalled, and his presidency could be in serious legal danger from the Russia investigation. So he very clearly (and understandably) wants to make changes.
Even if Trump’s staff changes result in a well-functioning White House, the timing and reasons behind the turnover suggest that he has suffered some spectacular departures unusually early in his first year. Trump hasn’t broken par — at least in this case — yet, but if he doesn’t learn from presidents like Barack Obama, who also had trouble keeping staffers in the White House, he’ll be remembered as chaotic.
— Philip H. DeVoe is a Collegiate Network fellow with National Review.