Any president’s first year is rife with optimism, but often fraught with missteps. Incoming staff members often find that their new jobs bear little resemblance to their campaign roles. Running the government requires aides to be well-versed in policy details, skilled in negotiation and compromise, and sensitive to the mores and demands of the Washington community (including interest groups, members and staff of Congress, the bureaucracy, and the media). Over the course of the first year, it is not unusual for presidents to fire poor performing or ethically compromised staff members. Some staff members receive promotions because of these departures, and a small number voluntarily leave. As explained below, while some turnover is expected and possibly beneficial, excessive turnover portends problems.
In this paper, I examine staff turnover in the first year of the Trump White House, compared to his five immediate predecessors. I find Trump’s turnover is record-setting, more than triple that of Obama and double that of Reagan. In looking at why Trump has experienced such high turnover, I argue he has valued loyalty over qualifications and suffered from a White House that has functioned in a chaotic manner. Both features have made it difficult to retain staff and have contributed to the governance difficulties he has encountered. If history is any guide, staff recruitment and retention during his second year could prove challenging as well.
What counts as turnover and why do we care? For the purposes of this study, senior staff turnover refers to a personnel action that creates a vacant position, through resignation, firing, or promotion within the White House or executive branch. Some staff changes no doubt rid the White House staff of bad apples, but changes can have some clear downsides as well. Any vacancy requires hiring a replacement, helping the replacement learn the ropes, and other staff shouldering more work until the new hire is up-to-speed (or permanently if the position stays vacant). Those remaining face disruptions and inefficiencies during the process.
While some turnover is expected and possibly beneficial, excessive turnover portends problems.
Turnover also deprives the White House of the previous incumbent’s personal relationships. In presidential politics, much like any business environment, the coin of the realm is personal relationships—ties to the Hill, party leaders, interest group leaders, advocacy organizations, and journalists are critical to presidential success. While a replacement may be able to reclaim those relationships, or at least some of them, to the degree the relationships cannot be replaced, too much turnover can be a hindrance for a new administration and its pursuit of policy goals.
Finally, a high-level departure may have a domino effect, since some or all of those who worked most closely with the departing staff member often leave as well, voluntarily or otherwise. For example, an incoming chief of staff, like John Kelly, typically wants to bring in his own deputy and maybe even additional staff whom he trusts. One high-level departure can result in two, three, or more staff members following suit.
Identifying any new president’s most influential staff—the group in which turnover is likely to be the most disruptive—is a complex and highly subjective task. Fortunately, from 1981 to 2009, the National Journal published, during each president’s first year, a list of those whom it called “Decision Makers” (what I call here the “A” Team). Its five lists included, on average, 60 staff members from the White House staff and the Executive Office of the President (e.g., Office of Management and Budget, National Security Council, Council on Environmental Quality, National Economic Council, and members of the vice president’s staff). As explained below, the list included some recurring and some new positions.
Because the final “Decision Makers” edition was published in 2009, Bloomberg Law journalist Madison Alder and I sought to replicate the National Journal’s effort in order to develop a list for 2017. We took an inventory of every job title from the five existing editions and determined the frequency with which the title was identified in the various editions. So, for example, the position of the chief of staff was identified in every edition (we call these “Tier One positions”), while the OMB director was listed in four of the five editions (“Tier Two positions”), and the director of media affairs was mentioned in just a single edition. We then listed every title since 1981 that was included a minimum of two times (a proxy for a position’s importance), and identified 45 Trump staff members who occupied those same positions (using roughly the same title from prior editions).
Each “Decision Maker” edition also listed new positions (19, on average, for the five first years). With each new administration, a new set of titles emerges. Presidents like to put their stamp on the White House and show their commitment to novel priorities (e.g., director of new media, director of online programs) or they may be creating a special position for a particular individual. In an effort to identify 19 new positions for the Trump team, I consulted a January listing of Trump White House staff compiled by Politico. After careful review, I selected 19 new positions (those not on any of the “Decision Makers” listings) that included assistants to the president and deputy assistants to the president (the two most senior titles within the White House organization).1 After creating the list, I relied on news reports to determine whether the position experienced turnover by resignation, dismissal, or internal White House or executive branch promotion.
Set out below is the level of turnover across the first term for President Trump’s five immediate predecessors, as well as his first year in office.
The numbers make clear that Trump’s “A” Team turnover is record-setting—double the previous leader (Reagan), and more than triple his immediate predecessor (Obama). But who were the individuals involved in this record number? As mentioned above, after culling all the staff titles, it was possible to break down the various positions into tiers with Tier One representing the positions that were mentioned in all five editions of “Decision Makers.” Six of the 12 Tier One positions saw turnover (Reince Priebus, chief of staff; Katie Walsh, deputy chief of staff; Sean Spicer, press secretary; George Sifakis, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Public Liaison; Michael Flynn, national security adviser, and KT McFarland, deputy national security adviser). By comparison, Obama lost one adviser from Tier One (Greg Craig, White House counsel), and George W. Bush did not see any turnover in these high-level positions.
President Trump’s “A” Team turnover is record-setting—double the previous leader, Reagan, and more than triple his immediate predecessor, Obama.
As for turnover across all tiered positions, the most staff disruption occurred in four offices: the Office of the Chief of Staff, the Office of Communications, the Press Office, and the National Security Council. The departure of the two most senior positions within the chief of staff’s office (the chief and deputy chief of staff) likely resulted in a wholesale restructuring once John Kelly arrived on the job.
Trump’s Office of Communications has undergone a great deal of turnover and endured extensive criticism. Initially, Sean Spicer served as press secretary and communications director—either job would be more than enough for a single individual. (Jason Miller, slated to be director, withdrew in December.) In March, the White House hired Mike Dubke to be director. He held the position for about three months. His successor, Anthony Scaramucci, held the job for less than a week in July. Hope Hicks then became interim, then actual communications director in September. Needless to say, three or four leaders (depending on how you count Sean Spicer) in one year likely contributed to criticisms that the White House lacked a coherent message. So many changes at the top no doubt made it extremely difficult to create and maintain a high performing office.
The Press Office also struggled with top leadership changes, including Spicer’s departure, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s promotion and Lindsay Walters’s subsequent elevation to deputy press secretary. The National Security Council saw the dismissal of its adviser (Michael Flynn), senior intelligence director (Ezra Cohen-Watnick), and senior director for Africa (Robin Townley), and the ambassadorial nomination, still pending, of former deputy adviser (K.T. McFarland)—four highly influential positions.
In addition to significant staff churning, several important positions remain vacant throughout the White House.
In addition to the significant staff churning explained above, several important positions remain vacant. (Note that President Trump’s public comments concerning his deliberate effort not to fill vacancies in the executive branch have not extended to the White House and the Executive Office of the President.) These openings include: a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget (even as that agency’s director, Mick Mulvaney, is also the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), and the director of speechwriting (not a position on the current White House salary list but one that Presidential Assistant and Senior Policy Director Stephen Miller may be performing). Kathleen Harnett White was nominated in October to chair the Council on Environmental Quality, but she has not yet been confirmed. The position of director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has not had a nominee since Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) withdrew his nomination in October amid controversy over legislation he sponsored that some argue is curtailing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to combat the opioid crisis. The director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy has never had a Trump nominee.2 In all five prior administrations, these positions had been filled by June of the first year—the time the National Journal published their “Decision Makers” edition.
Accounting for record-setting turnover
The reasons for staff turnover are many (i.e., firings, exhaustion, burnout, the need to move back home if one was commuting, the desire to earn a larger paycheck) and, of course, some turnover may not be all bad. From the president’s perspective, making staff changes contributes to a public perception that he is trying to improve operations. The arrival of new talent may also provide remaining staff with a sense of hope. However, record-setting turnover during Trump’s first year may be the result of at least two other unique factors. One factor was the president’s focus on loyalty over qualifications. Since the president relied on many of his connections in the private sector and was reluctant to hire those who opposed him during the campaign, the absence of prior White House experience among the ranks of the senior staff was glaring. In addition, the insurgent-like features of the Trump campaign and the relatively small campaign staff limited the pool of experienced applicants. While it created new opportunities for many individuals who had not previously worked in the White House, such inexperience may have led to poor performance and a slew of first-year departures.
Second, the unusually high turnover rate may stem in part from the borderline chaos that characterized the overall tenor of the administration’s first year, even while that high rate may have, in a vicious cycle, contributed to the chaos. The year began with an unconventionally feisty inaugural address and disputes over the size of the crowd that heard it, quickly followed by a hastily prepared executive order limiting immigration that provoked a slew of unfavorable judicial decisions. By mid-February, Trump fired the national security adviser under a cloud of suspicion that ultimately paved the way for the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller (to investigate the possibility of Russian involvement with the Trump campaign). Throughout the year, the threat from North Korea loomed large, even while the White House struggled to persuade Congress to pass the president’s initiatives (most strikingly, repealing the Affordable Care Act). Other controversial events included the president’s reaction to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the botched White House response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, and the president’s many inflammatory tweets, from Obama’s alleged wire-tapping to a popular vote victory lost because of millions of illegal votes.
To be sure, the president and his team have rightly claimed credit for their appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (even if it too caused contention over the prior Senate’s treatment of Obama nominee Merrick Garland), and the late December legislative victory on tax reform amongst others. Those were important achievements by any measure, but the overwhelming impression of this first year was one of constant tumult. Amidst this troubling backdrop, it is not difficult to see why there may have been a great deal of turnover among the senior ranks.
Looking ahead and concluding thoughts
If history is any guide, retaining senior staff members in year two will be an even more daunting task. All five of Trump’s predecessors experienced a large uptick in second-year staff turnover. Overworked and stressed out, many staff members may see the 12-month mark as the point at which one can claim White House experience and move on to lucrative, private-sector opportunities. In addition, recent news reports have discussed the possibility of another White House staff shake-up—one that will prioritize the political unit in an effort to gear up for midterm elections. All of these developments suggest another year of frequent churning—creating disruption, unwanted press coverage, and inefficiency.
Retaining senior staff members in year two will be an even more daunting task. All five of Trump’s predecessors experienced a large uptick in second-year staff turnover.
Perhaps the real story this coming year may well be the other side of the turnover coin: filling these senior staff vacancies. Year-two recruitment is more of a challenge for any administration because the post-election enthusiasm has long since faded, the “first string” recruits have been tapped out, and the harsh realities of governing are in full view. With the Mueller investigation heating up in the coming months and growing electoral fears after the Alabama Senate election, some Republicans might be less eager to send their resumes to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Writing in 2002, Matthew Dickinson and I contended that: “Presidents want aides with substantive policy knowledge who are sensitive to the bargaining interests of other ‘Washingtonians,’ and whose temperaments are more suited to negotiating than winner-take-all confrontation.” While true at the time of writing, it is not at all clear that President Trump prefers these traits, suggesting that, as in his first year, he will not try to put in place a senior staff who can boost his presidency. On the other hand, with continued low approval ratings, the president and his remaining top aides may come to realize the value of hiring those with the requisite skills, ultimately restoring turnover rates to levels more in line with those of his predecessors.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, whose collaboration on a larger project about White House staff turnover has informed my understanding of the Trump White House and the presidency more broadly.
Report Produced by Governance Studies
Viewed as a leading, independent voice in the domestic policymaking sphere, the Governance Studies program at Brookings is dedicated to analyzing policy issues, political institutions and processes, and contemporary governance challenges. Our scholarship identifies areas in need of reform and proposes specific solutions to improve governance worldwide, but with a particular emphasis on the United States.
- This dataset has been used to track the “A” Team over the course of one- and two-term presidents. See my prior study. Note that this research does not track the successor or any other staff changes related to that position. I am only interested in how long the initially named “Decision Maker” stayed on the job.
- Note that our inventory of National Journal positions does not penalize a president for not having filled a position. Rather, it simply makes the denominator smaller than it might otherwise be. President Trump’s N of 64 is comparable to his predecessors so he has appointed a typical number of “A” Team staff members, but the senior level vacancies noted in the text are atypical.