President Donald Trump’s remarkable pace of Cabinet turmoil continues. Between 5 p.m. Friday and 9:15 a.m. Saturday he announced that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney would take on double duty as his chief of staff and that his embattled interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, was on the way out.
Trump’s Cabinet has seen more turnover than any other recent President’s at this point in his term, and things show no sign of quieting down. A quick tally of the turnover thus far:
- More Cabinet-level officials have left Trump’s administration during two years than left either of the last two presidents’ teams in four, according to the Brookings Institution.
- On January 1, four of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries will be working temporarily on an acting basis.
- One Cabinet member, Mulvaney, will start doing two Cabinet jobs in the new year.
- One position is being downgraded from Cabinet level.
- Three positions will require confirmation hearings for new secretaries early in the new year.
- Nine of 24 current Cabinet-level positions have seen turnover – more than 37%.
- Trump has had trouble finding suitable replacements for key posts like White House chief of staff and attorney general.
Here’s a look at where things stand with his Cabinet:
Three Cabinet officials will leave the administration at the end of the year. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley resigns and that position will be removed from the Cabinet. Interior Secretary Zinke has been pushed out under fire from the outside and White House chief of staff John Kelly has been pushed out under fire from Trump. Before naming Mulvaney, Trump was turned down by his favored chief of staff replacement, Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide Nick Ayers, who is now leaving the White House altogether to run a pro-Trump super PAC.
Filling a vacancy
Keeping his day job as OMB director won’t make Mulvaney’s new role as interim White House chief of staff any easier. He’ll be in charge of managing access to Trump and keeping aides jockeying for position in line.
Plus, there are currently two and soon-to-be three acting secretaries in Trump’s Cabinet.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who worked in the George W. Bush administration, will take over at Interior for Zinke and is a contender to get the job permanently
Andrew Wheeler has carried on in Scott Pruitt’s mold on the policy front at the Environmental Protection Agency. While Trump has announced his intent to name Wheeler to the job permanently, he hasn’t yet filed the necessary paperwork.
The situation for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is more tenuous. The White House broke protocol to put him in the role, bypassing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. It’s unclear how extensively Whitaker was vetted, considering the amount of heat he has drawn over his ties to a patenting company shut down by the government this year over allegations of fraud. His days in the administration are numbered now that Trump has said he’ll nominate Bill Barr for the position.
Add to that Mulvaney, who has not been permanently named to the chief of staff job.
One thing complicating the search for replacements is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that no Republican senators can be spared for Cabinet roles. When Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general, Republicans subsequently lost Sessions’ old seat in the reliably red state of Alabama.
Trump’s nominee to be attorney general is William “Bill” Barr, who held the job during the George H.W. Bush administration. He’ll replace Sessions on a permanent basis and presumably oversee the Russia investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. Barr has previously defended Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey and has been critical of the Russia probe, but his strong reputation in Washington suggests he could have an easy confirmation.
Trump also said he would replace Haley, one of the most popular women in his Cabinet, with State Department spokeswoman (and former Fox News host) Heather Nauert. The catch is that the position will be downgraded and removed from his Cabinet. Nauert’s lack of traditional experience could lead to a tough confirmation.
Under fire from Trump
Kelly’s departure could spell trouble for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is linked to Kelly.
In an interview with Fox News after the elections last month, Trump didn’t sound very high on Nielsen. “I want her to get much tougher, and we’ll see what happens there,” he said.
With Kelly gone in 2019, Nielsen will be without a key ally in the West Wing, and she is among those Cabinet officials viewed as potential departures in the new year.
Under fire from outside
There’s a big difference between drawing public scrutiny and drawing scrutiny from Trump. He’s shown a willingness to stick with someone amid public scandals if he’s otherwise happy with the job they’re doing.
That didn’t save Zinke. The outgoing interior secretary is the subject of a Justice Department investigation and Trump announced his departure over the weekend. That doesn’t mean the probe will go away or that Democrats will ignore Zinke when they take control of Congress and gain new powers to investigate the administration early in 2019. Trump has not yet named a Zinke replacement.
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is under scrutiny for his previous role in a plea deal for multimillionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson have also faced public scrutiny, though that’s died down recently.
Other ousted secretaries include Pruitt, who hung on as EPA administrator for months despite a growing list of investigations into possible abuse of his power. But former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was gone relatively quickly over his use of private planes, which happened to coincide with Republicans’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In the game
There remains a core group of Cabinet officials and top advisers whose jobs appear to be safe. Chief among them is OMB Director/ interim chief of staff Mulvaney, filling two Cabinet roles. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo enjoys a close relationship with Trump, taking the lead on negotiations with North Korea and the response to the Jamal Khashoggi murder. National security adviser John Bolton, the third man to hold the job under Trump, has consolidated power since coming on board in March and has dictated much of the administration’s hardline foreign policy. Bolton reports directly to the President.
Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is negotiating with China and enforcing Trump’s tariffs. Then there’s Vice President Pence, who has taken on a wide portfolio, including standing in for the President on the campaign trail, while also projecting stalwart loyalty.
There’s nothing to indicate that people like Defense Secretary James Mattis or Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are on their way out. But both men have not been afraid to make their differences with Trump known at times, Coats on the issue of Russian interference and Mattis on issues like US troops at the border with Mexico.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is also not often discussed as a trouble spot for the President, but he hasn’t exactly been the most forceful Cabinet secretary. Plus, he is the lone remaining Goldman Sachs alum (now that Gary Cohn is out) with free trade tendencies visible on the President’s economic team. Mnuchin recommended Jay Powell to lead the Fed and Trump has said he now regrets the decision, given Powell’s interest rate hikes.
Gina Haspel is the first woman to lead the CIA and Trump has not publicly split with her, but the CIA has clearly split with him on Khashoggi and Haspel’s briefing for senators helped fuel their momentum to penalize Saudi Arabia for the murder despite the President’s wishes.
Under Trump’s radar
You don’t hear quite as much about these Cabinet secretaries, either because their agencies are not at the top of national headlines or because they aren’t pushing their way to the front.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar has pleased Trump with a new drug pricing plan. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue helped placate aggravated farmers after tariffs and is overseeing billions in payments to help offset their difficulties.
While Carson was the subject of an early scandal over expensive furniture purchased for his office, the issue blew over and news around Carson is scarce these days.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been busy promoting nuclear power abroad, including in Saudi Arabia, and propping up the US coal industry. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is among the quietest of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries. Mitch McConnell’s influential wife is the keeper of the infrastructure plan Trump has long promised.
DeVos suffered some initial stumbles, but has remained out of the broader conversation, though she’s come under fire from activists recently, particularly over her efforts to revamp Title IX.
Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon is quietly running the SBA but may have higher aspirations, while Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has helped stabilize an agency in turmoil after the firing of former Secretary David Shulkin.
This story has been updated to reflect new vacancies and developments.