Tillerson becomes the second cabinet officer, after Tom Price of Health and Human Services, to be forced from his job. But Trump also fired FBI Director James Comey, pushed Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe into retiring and privately threatened to push out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he reportedly derides as “Mr. Magoo.”
The chaos has been even greater on the White House staff, which has seen a dizzying pace of departures, including Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council; national security adviser Michael Flynn; chief strategist Steve Bannon; chief of staff Reince Priebus; deputy chiefs of staff Rick Dearborn and Katie Walsh; and spokesman Sean Spicer.
Trump has had two White House press secretaries, four communications directors and two chiefs of staff. On Monday, Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee, was fired and escorted out of the White House, reportedly in such haste that he left without his jacket.
“No one has ever seen anything like this,” said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy White House press secretary to President George W. Bush. “It’s bewildering.”
A study produced by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow with Governance Studies with the Brookings Institution in Washington, shows that during Trump’s first year as president, 34 percent of his senior White House staff left. That compares with 17 percent for Ronald Reagan’s first year, 11 percent for Bill Clinton and 9 percent for Barack Obama.
By contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the turnover rate for the entire U.S. workforce last year was just 3.6 percent.
“Some turnover in the White House is healthy,” Tenpas said. “You definitely want to be able to get rid of poor performers, move people around and promote from within. But when turnover gets to be this high, then it raises questions about morale in the building. It clearly creates disruption and puts a burden on the people left behind.”
C. Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in South Carolina, said such turbulence affects civil servants as well, calling the sweeping changes “disruptive.”
“And while it probably works for the president in his world, most people — and my sense is most people in the federal bureaucracy — do not really function all that well with constant disruption,” she said.
In some cases, those left behind are asked to pick up additional tasks. Joe Hagin, a native Ohioan and childhood friend of Sen. Rob Portman who lasted all eight years of the George W. Bush administration, is serving in two capacities in the Trump administration: as deputy chief of staff for operations and as director of scheduling, Tenpas said. Either, she said, would typically be considered a full-time job. Other staff members, she said, also have been asked to double up and even triple their workload.
The rapid changes in the cabinet and senior staff are bewildering on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio, said the “turnover in the White House is making it harder and harder for U.S. allies abroad to take us seriously.”
In addition, Fratto said “it’s not just making the change, but how the changes have occurred.” Cohn, who grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and helped shepherd the tax cut through Congress last year, was cut out of Trump’s decision last week to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports before he resigned.
Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public affairs, asked to explain Tillerson’s firing, said Tuesday that Tillerson was “unaware” why he was dismissed and did not speak to Trump before Trump announced Tillerson’s firing via Twitter. In reply, the White House promptly fired Goldstein.
Trump swiftly nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, a move that prompted Brown to say he has “serious concerns over whether Mike Pompeo is the right person for the job.”
Trump’s abrupt decision to fire Tillerson was the culmination in a relationship that has been fraught for months. When Trump nominated Tillerson in December 2016, he said in a statement he could “think of no one more prepared, and no one more dedicated, to serve as secretary of state at this critical time in our history.”
“Even on one of the most-pressing diplomatic issues of the Trump presidency — North Korea — Trump has undermined Tillerson publicly,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “Trump seems committed to doing things state White House personal assistant deputy White House chief of staff national security adviser FBI director press secretary communications director communications director Office of Government ethics director White House chief of staff
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director of the Office of Public Liaison on his own, without the input of the State Department. All indications are he accepted the face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un with little input from his diplomatic corps.”
During an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, Portman, R–Ohio, said, “Pompeo has got the respect at the State Department but also on the Hill.” But Portman also said, “Tillerson has done a good job. He comes to the Foreign Relations Committee and talks to us frequently, and I wish him well.”
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters Tuesday before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House for his trip to California. Trump was questioned about his firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his nomination of CIA Director...