Just when you think you’re on top of what’s going on at the Trump White House, a new headline flashes across breaking news screens: “Trump Fires Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”
Here we go again. Another top Trump advisor fired, resigned, or run out of a job. One more indication of a White House in complete disarray. Trump can’t attract good people to work for him, perhaps more important, can’t even hold onto the mediocre ones he’s got.
Indeed, the only person who may be happy about this whole debacle is George W. Bush. Bush knows he didn’t leave the White House with very high marks. In fact, he was initially ranked among the worst of our presidents. But compared to Trump, Bush is looking better and better. Heck, even Millard Fillmore’s reputation is soaring. Trump has turned the presidency upside down.
Privately, many presidential historians would likely agree: It’s been a while since we’ve had a more disreputable, obnoxious person in the Oval Office, nor anyone so manifestly unfit for the job. Conservative columnist George Will has called Trump “the nation’s worst president.”
It’s been a while since we’ve had a more disreputable, obnoxious person in the Oval Office, nor anyone so manifestly unfit for the job.
But it’s not so much Trump’s policies or politics that confound experts, it’s his stunning ignorance of the issues, his apparent unwillingness to listen and learn, his lack of any experienced, substantive advisors and his totally unstructured, seat-of-the-pants decision-making process. Under Trump’s lack of leadership, the White House is in total meltdown.
That meltdown is nowhere more glaring than in Trump’s inability to hire or retain a top-notch White House staff. Assembling a quality team was the first challenge, for a couple of reasons. For starters, the Trump campaign did nothing to prepare for his White House transition — perhaps because they never thought they had a snowball’s chance of winning.
Meanwhile, scores of experienced officials who’d served in previous Republican administrations and knew how to form a government stayed away. Washington is full of these government-in-exile types who survive in law firms or think tanks when out of power, simply waiting for a chance to saddle up again once their party’s back in control. But not this time.
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As a result, 14 months in, the Trump White House and cabinet agencies remain severely understaffed. In particular, as of January 2018, Trump had yet to nominate individuals for around 240 top positions in the executive branch — all of which require Senate approval.
It’s unclear if he plans to fill those positions — or if he ever planned to. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” Trump told Fox News as early as February 2017. “You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.”
Except you really do. Maybe not every minute of every day, but you certainly need somebody on the job when a crisis strikes that agency’s area of responsibility.
Take North Korea. With Trump suddenly agreeing to one-on-one talks with North Korean leader Kim Jung un, the United States has no Ambassador to South Korea. Similarly, Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea relations, resigned on February 28, 2018 and no replacement has been nominated.
In other words, charging into high-stakes talks with Kim Jung Un, Trump is flying without key lieutenants. Even more so, now that Tillerson’s gone.
As if that’s not scary enough, on top of hundreds of unfilled key positions and the unqualified people filling other top jobs lies an even bigger problem: The Trump White House is one big revolving door.
Charging into high-stakes talks with Kim Jung Un, Trump is flying without key lieutenants. Even more so, now that Tillerson’s gone.
In fact, if you’ve had a hard time keeping up with who’s in and who’s out at the Trump White House, you’re not alone. The cast of players changes almost daily.
According to a January 2018 Brookings Institution report, the rate of turnover in the Trump White House so far is unprecedented. In the first year of the Trump administration, a whopping 43 percent of top White House aides have either resigned, been fired, or moved on to different jobs. That’s more than triple the turnover in President Barack Obama’s first year, and double the rate under President Ronald Reagan.
And that was before the surprise resignations of Communications Director Hope Hicks, Chief Economics Adviser Gary Cohn and the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Hicks, of course, is not the first communications director to leave the Trump White House. She’s actually the fifth individual to serve in that position in some capacity (including Jason Miller, who served for just two days and backed out before the inauguration). With Miller, the average tenure of communication directors is 88 days. To put this in perspective, during the eight years of his presidency, Obama had a total of four communications directors. President George W. Bush had five. In eight years!
Gary Cohn, once considered the “adult in the room” at the Trump White House, Cohn thought about resigning after Trump’s Charlottesville debacle but stayed on to stop Trump from imposing what he considered economically destructive tariffs. Once Trump rebuked him on tariffs, Cohn, too, threw in the towel.
The names of the departed become something of a blur after a while. Remember Dina Powell and K.T. McFarland, deputy national security advisers?
Of people holding dozens of senior positions in the Trump White House, the Brookings study found that 21 of them had been fired or forced out. And they include some of the most important jobs in Washington. The names of the departed become something of a blur after a while. Remember Dina Powell and K.T. McFarland, deputy national security advisers? What about Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, or Sally Yates, our former acting attorney general? Most people remember the departure of Steve Bannon, but what about Walter Schaub, director of the office of government ethics? Meanwhile, hundreds of top positions in every department and agency sit empty, absent any presidential appointment.
And this list doesn’t even include the dismissals of staff secretary Rob Porter and speechwriter David Sorensen, both of whom were accused of domestic violence.
Meanwhile, the most popular guessing game in Washington right now is how long before Attorney General Jeff Sessions, frequently attacked by Trump, finally throws in the towel. But the next to go could easily be someone else entirely, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose disastrous “60 Minutes” may prove impossible to overcome. The New York Times is betting on Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. At this point, even Vice President Mike Pence had better make sure he’s got a place to go home to in Indiana. In this White House, nobody’s job is secure.
In his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump bragged: “I alone can fix it.” Now it turns out he may have to — because there won’t be anybody else left. That’s no way to lead a White House, and it’s certainly no way to lead a nation.
Bill Press started his career in California state politics, before moving into media and eventually ending up on CNN’s political commentary show, "Crossfire." He since appeared on print, on the radio and on TV for numerous outlets, including his own nationally syndicated radio show. Press is the author of 13 books his most recent, "From the Left: A Life in the Crossfire" is out March 20, 2018 (Thomas Dunne Books.)