To work at the pleasure of President Trump is to never know when your last day will come and whether the exit will be on your own terms. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s resignation this week (or was it firing?) is just the latest example.
When former Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein woke up on the morning of March 13, 2018, he didn’t know he was about to be fired. He went to the gym and rowed 13,000 meters on the indoor rower, the longest he had ever done. Then, things went south.
“I think when you first get fired, and especially in my case where I saw it unfold on CNN and then got a call from the White House, it is rather shocking,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein’s boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had been forced out that morning after months of rumors about a breakdown of his relationship with Trump. The announcement came via tweet, as they often do. But Tillerson didn’t go quietly. Goldstein put out a statement on his behalf contradicting the official account of the firing and saying “The Secretary did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason.”
And, then, Goldstein himself was fired, after just three months on the job.
“You know going into it that that can happen,” Goldstein said. “I mean, I wasn’t naïve to this and honestly, it is the purview of the president to have whomever he or she chooses to have work for them.”
But this very uncertainty is contributing to the high number of vacancies in the Trump administration and the increasing length of time it’s taking to get someone permanent (or as permanent as anyone can be) into these key roles. There has been a dramatic uptick in the amount of time it takes the Trump administration to fill cabinet and high level staff vacancies and there’s been a proliferation of people in “acting” roles with no end in sight.
An NPR analysis finds that since David Shulkin’s forced resignation as secretary of Veterans Affairs in late March 2018, none of the cabinet-level vacancies have had new leaders confirmed in fewer than 90 days. But the hang-up isn’t in Congress. It is taking Trump longer to name successors for ousted aides and agency heads, and several of his initial picks have had to withdraw. Of the departures announced in the past five months, only one has a successor named and formally nominated.
“There is a very small recruiting pool of people that are acceptable to President Trump and individuals who have had requisite experience that would want these jobs,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a researcher who specializes in White House staff turnover at the Brookings Institution. “That, in combination with his impulsive nature, and his tendency to fire people more than any other president that I’ve studied means that there’s going to be vacancies for a long period of time.”
On multiple occasions President Trump has claimed that people are clamoring to work in his administration.
“I have five people that want it very much. I mean, a lot more than that would like to have it,” Trump said Wednesday of possible replacements for Bolton. “We’ll be announcing somebody next week, but we have some highly qualified people.”
He made a similar claim last December about replacing John Kelly as chief of staff. “We have a lot of people that want the job chief of staff,” Trump said. “Over a period of a week or two or maybe less, we’ll announce who it’s going to be.”
Instead, a few days later, he announced that Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, would serve as acting chief of staff.
More than 270 days later, Mulvaney is still “acting” as is Russell Vought, who is the acting budget director.
On August 8, Trump said a new director of national intelligence would “be named shortly” after Dan Coats left the post and Trump’s initial pick ran into vetting problems and withdrew from consideration. “That’s a job that everybody wants,” Trump boasted.
But, more than a month later, there’s an acting director and no indication that Trump will name a permanent pick anytime soon.
“As far as I’m concerned, acting is good,” Trump recently said when asked about the high number of people in seemingly unending acting roles. “Acting gives you great flexibility that you don’t have with permanent, so I’m OK with the word acting. But when I like people I make them permanent. But I can leave acting for a long period of time.”
And he has.
The secretary of defense was “acting” for more than six months, the longest period of vacancy in history for that critical role.
“There’s never been this many acting simultaneously in these highly visible positions,” Tenpas says.
One reason, is that departures in the Trump administration are rarely planned events, especially recently. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned suddenly over a policy disagreement, and then president Trump asked him to leave the post before a replacement could be identified.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out in April. A permanent successor still hasn’t been named and Kevin McAleenan continues doing the job with “acting” ahead of the title. It’s been 158 days.
When Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta resigned in July amid controversy over his handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case years earlier in Florida, it didn’t take Trump long to name his pick for a replacement. It was less than a week later when he announced Eugene Scalia would be nominated for the role. But it took two months for the White House to formally send the nomination up to Capitol Hill, just yesterday. Why would it take so long? Because the confirmation process requires a lot of vetting and paperwork, which is hard to do in advance if the resignations and firings aren’t planned for.
For those who answer the call to serve in the Trump administration, the jobs are more ephemeral than in past administrations and there’s a decent chance of leaving with a dash of reputational damage.
“I can’t say that anybody’s reputation has been enhanced and I can point out a number of people who look a lot worse after having worked for President Trump,” said Tenpas of the Brookings Institution.
As Tenpas has tracked firings and transitions in the Trump administration, she’s run out of superlatives and space in her chart on staff turnover in past administrations. She created a new chart just to track “serial turnover,” when there are at least three or more individuals who have been in senior positions.
“This is a new chart because it’s never happened before. I had no reason to make this chart,” Tenpas said.
The national security adviser, White House chief of staff and communications director positions have all experienced serial turnover. But there’s also something in the way administration departures have happened at both the staff and cabinet level, suddenly, publicly, playing out with breaking news alerts on cable, often without a well vetted replacement ready to take the job.
Looking back through her data and studying other presidents, Tenpas reached the conclusion that “there’s never been so many highly visible departures or people fired under unfavorable circumstances and resigning under pressure.”
Which raises the question Goldstein says he has been asked just about every day since leaving the State Department: “why did you go to Washington to serve in the Trump administration?” Especially knowing that it could end the way it did.
His answer is this: he felt like they were able to accomplish good things during his short tenure and “I do fundamentally believe that you have an obligation to serve your country, and until you are put in that position where you’re asked to … serve, you don’t know what your answer would be.”
Nearly a year and a half later, there still hasn’t been anyone nominated to fill the position Goldstein held, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.