The word out of the White House is that anyone not directly related to Donald Trump could be on the chopping block as this most mercurial of presidents seethes and stews over the midterm setback for his party last week and his broader grievances that he is not being well-served by his staff.
Which, uh, welcome to the Trump White House. Since Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, he has overseen one of the most chaotic Cabinets in modern history – with resignations, firings and the whispers of future resignations and firings an almost-daily story.
The latest: Trump has decided he wants Kirstjen Nielsen, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, gone – although it’s unclear when she will go. Thrown into that mix is the fact that White House chief of staff John Kelly is very close to Nielsen – she followed him into the DHS job – and might take umbrage at her firing (or forced resignation) and step aside himself. Given the ongoing tensions between Trump and Kelly, it’s hard to say that such a two-for-one scenario would bother the President.
There’s a tendency to reach to normalize Trump’s hot-knife-through-butter slicing and dicing of his Cabinet. After all, being a Cabinet secretary – or a senior White House official – is a very stressful job. And history suggests that people wear out and are replaced – particularly after a major moment like a midterm election.
But, as with so many things when it comes to Trump, this tendency toward normalization undersells the historic anomaly we are witnessing. Yes, Cabinet officials and senior staff leave every White House. No, we have not seen the level or pace of departures occurring in this White House ever before in modern memory.
Consider this: nine(!) Cabinet official have already left the Trump administration less than two years into his presidency. That equals the number of Cabinet officials who left in then-President Barack Obama’s entire first four years in office, according to stats maintained by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas at Brookings. In George W. Bush’s first term in office, only four Cabinet members left. The only recent president who saw more Cabinet departures in his first four years in office than Trump has overseen in his first less-than-two is Bill Clinton, who lost 12 Cabinet officials in his first term.
Those numbers don’t include, obviously, the likely departure of Nielsen and the possible departure of Kelly. Nor do they take into account embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “We’re looking at that, and I do want to study whatever is being said,” Trump said last Wednesday of the allegations that Zinke broke agency rules regarding travel for he and his wife. “I think he’s doing an excellent job, but we will take a look at that, and we’ll probably have an idea on that in about a week.”
And it’s not just Trump’s Cabinet that has seen historic amounts of turnover in the first two years of his presidency. Almost six in 10 of Trump’s “A Team” staffers – defined as the most senior and most influential within the administration – have already departed the White House even before Trump’s two-year anniversary in office. (This data is, again, courtesy of Kathryn Dunn Tenpas.) Compare that to 24% turnover among Obama’s “A Team” in his first two years, 33% for Bush, 38% for Clinton and 25% for George H.W. Bush. Only Ronald Reagan – 57% departure rate among “A Team staffers in his first two years – nears Trump.
For anyone who has followed Trump’s career – in and out of political office – these history-making numbers shouldn’t be terribly surprising. After all, this is a man who rose to cultural prominence thanks to a reality TV show where he played the big boss whose catchphrase was “You’re fired.” And Trump has repeatedly insisted during his time in the White House that he likes some level of chaos and infighting among the people who work for him – believing that it brings out the best in everyone.
He’s also been quite clear in his conviction that the only irreplaceable person in the Trump administration is named “Donald John Trump.”
“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” Trump told Fox News in a November 2017 interview about the lack of top staff at the State Department. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that, you’ve seen it strongly.”
We have, in fact, seen it very strongly. Trump views everyone outside of his immediate family as expendable.
For a President who values making history and always having (or saying he has) the biggest and the best, Trump can take comfort in this fact: When it comes to people leaving his administration, he’s at the top of the heap.