Record-setting White House staff turnover continues with news of Counsel’s departure

White House counsel Don McGahn exits the Senate chamber after the U.S. Senate voted to confirm the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., October 6, 2018.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC17D67B34F0

With the recent departure of White House Counsel, Don McGahn (and premature announcement of his successor, Pat Cipollone), turnover within the most senior level of White House staff members bumped up to 83 percent. Ten of the twelve Tier One staff members have departed, leaving only Cabinet Secretary, Bill McGinley, and Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett. (See Table 1.)

A little less than four months ago, I analyzed Tier One turnover when Marc Short announced his forthcoming departure. This piece is an extension of that study and incorporates the departure of White House Counsel, Don McGahn. Once again, I relied on the National Journal’s series “Decisionmakers.” (Published at the beginning of each administration from Reagan through Obama, this special issue identifies the most influential aides to an incoming president.) An inventory of these many positions revealed that twelve were mentioned in every single edition (I call these “Tier One” positions), and presumably reflect the “crème de la crème” within the ranks of presidential advisers. This sub-sample includes the following positions: Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs, Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs, White House Counsel, Staff Secretary, Cabinet Secretary, National Security Adviser, Deputy National Security Adviser and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Much like turnover within the larger sample of senior White House staff, President Trump is breaking records. Ten (or 83 percent) of the most senior-ranking White House advisers have departed, sparking a cascade of turnover in the junior ranks as well. Of the ten departures, seven have resigned under pressure (Priebus, Walsh, Spicer, Sifakis, Porter, Flynn and McFarland), one was promoted (Clark) and two (Short and McGahn) resigned on their own volition (though not without enduring some amount of criticism and controversy over the course of their tenure). In addition, three of these positions have subsequently experienced even more turnover than the initial departure: Deputy Chief of Staff (on their fourth), National Security Adviser (on their third) and Deputy National Security Adviser (on their fourth). Compared to President Trump’s five predecessors, this level of turnover is record-setting—more than double that of President Obama after two full years in office, and a full 24 percentage points higher than the previous record set by Ronald Reagan (59 percent). (See Table 2.)

While I have addressed the fallout of high turnover in prior writings, the departure of the White House Counsel is particularly noteworthy. This office has been aptly described as the “hub of all presidential activity”. Facing the prospect of a Democratic House after the midterm elections and a subsequent onslaught of oversight investigations, such an electoral result has the capacity to overwhelm the office. The White House Counsel’s office is responsible for formally responding to congressional subpoenas, preparing administration officials for testimony, and fulfilling document requests, amidst myriad existing duties. Staff members shift to crisis-mode while the president’s agenda gets sidelined. Adding a degree of difficulty for the current administration is the skeletal nature of the current White House Counsel’s office. According to the Washington Post, this office typically operates with 50 lawyers and is now down to 25, including the loss of four of its five key deputies.

Hiring additional lawyers before the midterm elections could prove to be a challenge, but recruitment should be Mr. Cipollone’s top priority. As with any presidency, the bench of recruits gets thinner and thinner over time, making it more difficult to hire qualified staff members. The post-election victory glow has long since faded while reports of chaos and leaks continue. So while the new White House Counsel may arrive with the requisite enthusiasm and energy for the job, this could quickly evaporate as he struggles to fill critical and numerous vacancies.

Table 1: Tier One Turnover in the Trump Administration
Tier One Turnover Name Status Date Successor
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus Out 7/31/17 John Kelly
Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh Out 3/30/17 Kirsten Nielsen, James Carroll, Zachary Fuentes
Press Secretary Sean Spicer Out 7/21/17 Sarah Sanders
Assistant to the President for Public Liaison George Sifakis Out 7/31/17 John DeStefano (interim), Justin Clark
Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Marc Short Out 7/20/18 Shahira Knight
Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs Justin Clark Out 3/13/18 Douglas Hoelscher
White House Counsel Don McGahn Out 10/18/18 Pat Cipollone
Staff Secretary Rob Porter Out 2/7/18 Derek Lyons
Cabinet Secretary Bill McGinley
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn Out 2/13/17 H.R. McMaster, John Bolton
Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland Out 5/19/17 Dina Powell, Nadia Schadlow, Mira Ricardel
Chair of the Counsel of Economic Advisers. Kevin Hassett
Table 2: Tier One Turnover During the First Two Years
Y1 Y2 Total
Reagan 17% 42% 59%
Bush I 0% 17% 17%
Clinton 25% 33% 58%
Bush II 0% 17% 17%
Obama 8% 33% 41%
Trump 50% 33% 83%

Data obtained through successive editions of National Journal’s “Decisionmakers” and various web sources.