Turnover Within the Trump Administration is Historically, Astonishingly High
In this ever-increasingly politically polarized environment, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, hyperbole from reality. The talking heads on cable news will often cherry pick data points -- or rely on conjecture – in order to support their ideologies; social media amplifies this phenomenon exponentially. To wit: with a number of high-profile departures from the White House over the last several weeks, a well-known MSNBC pundit referred to the Trump administration as “the Trump White House personnel-carousel.” A Fox News counterpart, on the other hand characterized turnover in the White House over the last 15 months as “smart staffing.” So which is it?
Fortunately, we can stay above the fray by dispassionately analyzing several datasets. Brookings has for years maintained a running list of turnover among the President’s “A-Team”: the most senior staff positions in the Executive Office of the President. The roles include positions such as White House Chief of Staff, White House Press Secretary, White House Communications Director, and National Security Advisor. For the purposes of this analysis, we will consider “turnover” to mean a position that was vacated, either through resignation, retirement or firing, and subsequently filled with another individual. For example: President Reagan’s Press Secretary, James Brady, was terribly wounded in an assassination attempt against the President just 69 days into Reagan’s term and was never able to return to work; however, in deference to Brady, the Reagan White House never named another Press Secretary and instead had a series of “Acting” or “Interim” press secretaries. This accommodation would not count as turnover in our analysis. Further, Brookings’ “A-Team” does not include Cabinet secretaries – but we’ll get to that shortly. Based on Brookings’ analysis, how does the turnover in the White House during President Trump’s tenure compare to that of his most recent predecessors?
In his first year in office, approximately 34 percent of President Trump’s senior staff resigned or were fired. For comparison, 9 percent of President Obama’s most senior staffers had departed by the end of his first year in office and President George W. Bush had lost only 6 percent. President Reagan set the previous record at 17 percent; precisely half of President Trump’s turnover. Though jarring, this still doesn’t tell the full story. Brookings’ analysis only counts turnover in each senior position once. This means that turnover in positions such as the White House Communications Director, which has been filled by four people throughout the Trump presidency, is significantly underrepresented in Brookings’ analysis.
Brookings also doesn’t include Cabinet secretaries in their calculation of White House turnover. But this dataset is equally unique for the Trump administration:
Here too, the Trump White House is a statistical anomaly. Three cabinet-level positions turned over during President Trump’s first year: the White House Chief of Staff (Reince Preibus resigned under pressure), the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Tom Price resigned following reports of lavish spending on private flights), and the Secretary of Homeland Security (John Kelly resigned to become the new White House Chief of Staff). Until 2017, no President in modern history had any turnover of a cabinet-level position during his first year in office, let alone three.
Taken altogether – senior staff and Cabinet secretaries combined – this is what the turnover during the first 15 months of President Trump’s presidency has looked like:
This analysis is not meant to opine as to whether significantly-higher-than-average personnel changes within the West Wing and President’s Cabinet are a net positive or negative phenomenon. That debate has been raging within business schools across the country for decades and is better left to the Harvard Business Review. But the data is absolutely clear that the first 15 months of President Trump’s term have been marked by historic levels of turnover at the most senior levels of his administration, the likes of which the U.S. has never before seen.