Several high-profile names exited the White House in President Donald Trump’s first year. Those departures, coupled with a lack of traditional governing experience among other White House staffers, led to the highest year-one turnover rate among top executive office staff in the past six administrations.
The Trump administration nears the one-year mark with an estimated turnover rate as high as 36 percent among top staff, according to Bloomberg Law analysis and Brookings Institution research. That’s more than twice the rate of the second-highest first-year turnover rate of 17 percent during Ronald Reagan’s inaugural year in 1981.
Reince Priebus’ early departure as White House chief of staff “was an invitation for more turnover,” Andy Card, chief of staff to President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg Law.
Card, who held the title of chief of staff for six years, said it’s “unusual” to have change in that position in the first nine months of an administration. That typically happens later. Whenever a new chief of staff is brought in “it’s expected” that the person will want to bring in new personnel and that contributes to the turnover, he said.
Priebus’ departure was followed most notably by the departures of chief strategist Steve Bannon and Director of the Office of Public Liaison George Sifakis.
Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow in the Governance Studies program of The Brookings Institution who has tracked presidential staff turnover for the past five administrations, told Bloomberg Law that turnover is important because it’s “a fundamental component to White House operations.”
“I think it’s a sign of the health of the institution,” Tenpas said.
When contacted for this story, the White House didn’t provide a comment.
Lower Turnover in Past Four Administrations
Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush had turnover rates of between 6 percent and 11 percent in the first year in office, according to Tenpas’ findings.
Bloomberg Law and Tenpas analyzed staff departures in the Trump administration using the same methodology as the previous turnover rates for a comparable estimate.
The estimated turnover for the Trump administration’s first year is a range of 31 to 36 percent. That rate, like Tenpas’ estimates for previous administrations, counts only the first personnel change in a given position and includes any change in staff, including departures and promotions.
The estimate also includes the departures of Omarosa Manigault, communications director for the Office of Public Liaison, and Rick Dearborn, deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, who’ve both announced they will leave the White House early in the new year. The range in the turnover rate reflects the variation that comes from comparing the different positions that are uniquely important to each administration, like Manigault’s position.
The numbers give some indication of how much turnover occurred, but to understand what’s going on in an administration “you need to look behind the numbers a little bit and find out who are the individuals that departed,” Tenpas said.
Open for Business
The loose structure under Priebus at the beginning of Trump’s presidency was an early issue that contributed to staff turnover, Martha Kumar, a retired professor of political science at Towson University and director of the White House Transition Project, told Bloomberg Law. The White House Transition Project is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve institutional knowledge of the White House from administration to administration.
“One of the things we sometimes forget about in this administration, is that the president doesn’t have experience as an elected official,” Kumar said.
Many staff members who knew the president from the campaign trail or business world still had the same level of access to Trump they were accustomed to before Inauguration Day under Priebus, Kumar said. That kind of loose structure at the beginning of an administration is typically favored by Democratic administrations, Kumar said.
Current chief of staff John Kelly, who replaced Priebus, introduced lines of communication and a more hierarchical structure to better control who had access to the president, she said. That made things start to run more smoothly.
“Changing from Priebus to Kelly was a recognition by the president that he needed to tighten the ship,” she said.
Follow the Leader
Priebus wasn’t the only high-level staff member to go. Early exits from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and press secretary Sean Spicer also prompted responsive staff departures and change-ups.
“The fact that there are senior level people who moved out, means that the turnover rate is higher,” Card said.
“Those are three very big positions to change,” Card said. “Any one of them would have been contrary to the norm in the first year. To have three of them in the first nine months is pretty unusual.”
Flynn was ousted from his post less than a month into the administration amid skepticism about his communications with Russia. Flynn’s exit was followed by other national security leaders like his deputy Kathleen Troia McFarland and later Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council.
Then came Spicer, who resigned his post in July, prompting a reshuffle in the communications department.
Kumar said communications typically has a high rate of turnover in the first place, but this administration’s rate thus far was one of the highest she’s seen.
Spicer, along with former communications director Mike Dubke, who announced his resignation in May, are two of the major leaders on the communications team to leave their posts. But much of the communications department change calculated in the turnover estimate was the result of a reshuffle.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for example, left her role as Spicer’s deputy to become the administration’s press secretary, while Hope Hicks went from director of strategic communications to communications director after Dubke left the operation.
‘A Learning Curve’
“I think he’s legitimately climbing a learning curve,” Card said of Trump. “Most presidents come in having climbed a bit of a learning curve already.”
The turnover in Trump’s first year was likely exacerbated by his not holding a governing role prior to becoming president, Card said. The administration “had a bias” against people who had worked for presidential administrations before, which limited its institutional knowledge of White House operations, Card said.
Kumar echoed Card, saying that many of those who’ve been fixtures in the current White House are people who had previous experience in government like presidential personnel director John DeStefano, director of legislative affairs Marc Short, and White House staff secretary Rob Porter.
All of them have backgrounds on Capitol Hill and “an understanding of the dynamics of Congress,” she said.
Tenpas, who’s a senior research director at The White House Transition Project in addition to her work with the Brookings Institution, started tracking White House turnover data as part of her research on incumbent presidents running for reelection.
“It’s very difficult to get a comprehensive listing of White House staff,” Tenpas said. She wanted to find a way to estimate the turnover with a consistent group of staff and was primarily concerned with the “A” team, or the president’s senior staff, because that is where turnover is most crucial.
Tenpas tracked top staff turnover for presidents back to Reagan using the “Decision Makers” list published by the National Journal at the beginning of each presidential administration from 1981 to 2009. The list included senior staff that the publication considered essential to each president and was typically published in June during the first year of a new presidency.
The last “Decision Makers” edition to be published was the 2009 edition at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s administration, meaning there was no list for Tenpas to track through Trump’s presidency.
To fill that gap, Bloomberg Law and Tenpas analyzed the positions from past administrations to determine which were identified most frequently. There were 60 high-level positions identified in two or more administrations going back to Reagan. Of that number, there were 45 corresponding positions in the Trump administration. The turnover rate among those 45 positions is about 31 percent.
Most administrations, however, had an average of 19 positions listed that were uniquely important to the specific administration. Tenpas identified 19 such positions in the Trump White House, including Steve Bannon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Dina Powell, and Dan Scavino, that weren’t included in the 45 positions that overlapped with those of previous administrations.
Adding those 19 unique positions brought the total number of positions evaluated to 64, which is just over the average total number of positions counted for administrations prior. With the higher number of positions, the first-year turnover rate is about 36.
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