Rex Tillerson is out, but Ben Carson, for now, is still in. So are Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt and a handful of other Cabinet secretaries causing the White House and the Trump administration public relations headaches at the moment.
There’s a complicated storyline behind each, but the fact remains that in firing Tillerson, President Donald Trump ousted one of the Cabinet secretaries who hasn’t been under the microscope for any questionable activity. They just disagree and didn’t seem to get along.
In the past few weeks, multiple Trump Cabinet secretaries have been under scrutiny for these things:
- Not being able to answer basic questions about their job (Education Secretary DeVos).
- Ordering expensive office furniture on the taxpayer dime (Housing and Urban Development Secretary Carson).
- Taking trips, including to Europe, and being investigated by the Office of the Inspector General (Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin).
- Flying first class as a security precaution and also security contracting issues (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Pruitt).
- Undercutting a presidential tweet by moving forward with a plan to allow the importation of elephant trophies (Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke).
If you widen the lens to include senior appointed officials adjacent to the Cabinet, there are even more:
- Being accused of violating the Hatch Act by publicly endorsing Trump in an official capacity (FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly).
- Buying tobacco stock after taking a top public health role (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Brenda Fitzgerald, who actually resigned).
The list goes on.
Compare that list with the publicly expressed reasons that Trump’s top diplomat and his top economic adviser either resigned or were fired:
- Disagreed with Trump on tariffs, was a globalist rather than a nationalist (economic adviser Gary Cohn).
- Disagreed with Trump on the Iran nuclear deal and just generally didn’t agree (Secretary of State Tillerson).
See the difference? Flubs and scandal surrounding mismanagement do not equal termination for Cabinet officials or resignation for economic advisers. Deep policy differences do.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Trump’s first health and human services secretary, Tom Price, resigned after his chartered private plane use became a distraction.
And Shulkin appears to be on incredibly thin ice. But in addition to his scandals, he is the only Trump Cabinet secretary held over from President Barack Obama. That wasn’t a controversial choice at the time, but Shulkin and the White House do have policy disputes, including on how much to privatize services for veterans.
But others facing travel criticism – Pruitt, Shulkin, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – remain in their posts.
Trump’s frustration with Tillerson has been cataloged in great detail, including on the President’s Twitter feed.
He’s been the most-bullied (by Trump) Cabinet secretary except for Jeff Sessions, the attorney general the President has said he wishes he hadn’t nominated. Granted, Tillerson reportedly referred to Trump as a “moron” in meetings. And Trump later found out about it.
Cohn also split with Trump on the President’s defense of white nationalists who violently protested in Charlottesville, Virginia. But it was the tariffs that led him to resign.
When CNN’s Chris Cillizza ranked the Cabinet in order of who could face firing next, Sessions took his first and second spots. Not because of any mismanagement scandal or travel snafu, but because of differences over how Sessions was carrying out his job. He recused himself from the Russia investigation, which led to the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians. Trump has never forgiven him.
Who knows if there is another shoe to drop. But Trump teased additional changes even if he suggested general happiness with the his post-Tillerson staff: “I’m really at a point where we’re close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.”
That’ll apparently include all the baggage that people like DeVos and Carson – among others – bring, but none of the policy disputes from people like Tillerson.