The mid term elections are over and Americans are preparing for a number of resignations and firings inside the White House. It’s obvious that a president who made the phrase, “You’re fired,” popular is getting ready to use the same words in Washington.
In this analysis, we want to look at the attrition rate of the Trump Administration and how it stacks up to previous administrations. Then we will look at the critical posts that will probably be vacant within the next few weeks. Then we will look at possible replacements and the potential policy changes that this will engender.
Turnover is common in White House positions. While they are attractive, they engender long hours and considerable pressure. As a result, there is a above average turnover as people decide they don’t want the pressure and time away from their families, and their bosses decide that the person isn’t fulfilling the job requirements.
It’s also a fact that many people who go the White House only want to stay long enough to make contacts and add the job to their résumé. Then they are off to a higher paying position in the outside world.
The post election period between November and January is a popular time to make these changes. The White House can calibrate its policy and make changes (as Bush did in 2006 after suffering major losses in the Senate and House). In addition, the holidays are a slow time, when positions can remain vacant until a new person is picked and confirmed (if necessary).
There is also the case of firing people that the president didn’t want to fire before the elections for political reasons. That was surely the case with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Consequently, the Trump Administration is making several key changes.
Although the media has made an issue of the turnover in the Trump Administration, a Brookings Institution study shows that changes amongst Trump’s important White House executives are in line with turnovers in every administration since President Reagan. In fact, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush made more mid term election year changes in their executive staff.
President Trump has had the largest percentage turnover in the first year since 1980 (about 35%). However, his second year turnover rate is lower than other presidents (this figure includes Sessions, but may change in the next two months). In terms of cabinet positions, Trump is tied with Clinton in number of turnovers. Obama is in third place.
Obviously, the media has made more of an issue of changes in Trump’s Administration than they did with other presidents.
However, that isn’t to say that the Trump Administration is not without its problems. There have been reports of heated arguments in the hallways (the argument between Chief of Staff Kelly and National Security Advisor Bolton is a good example.
In some cases, the problem is that when Trump was elected he relied on advice from other Republicans because he knew little about the people in Washington. The result was that he picked people that were not a good fit for his administration. In many cases, they advocated positions that he opposed.
The first post election casualty was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was asked to resign. As senator, Sessions was the first important politician to endorse Trump. Given his early support and former job in the Justice Department, he was a natural choice for the position. However, he proved to be ineffective – partially because he recused himself from the Russian probe and he failed to take firm control of his department.
Although the Attorney General doesn’t have a major impact in national security issues, he is part of the national security team. And, given the number of investigations that the Democrats are threatening, he will be a point man in defending the administration’s actions.
Trump’s temporary appointment of Matthew Whitaker as Attorney General fits the Trump criteria. In recent writings, he has taken the same positions as Trump on the Special Prosecutor and Immigration. He has also made it clear that he will not recuse himself from supervising the Special Prosecutor and will take over management of that from the current Deputy Attorney General. This has raised objections from the Democrats that he can’t fill the position. The DoJ has countered with legal precedents and will probably win the case in the courts.
Since Whitaker is only temporary, he must be confirmed by the US Senate in order to be the permanent Attorney General.
There, are however, some changes that will have more of an impact on foreign policy. One of those changes represented a first – being pushed out by the First Lady.
First Ladies traditionally stay out of major national and international policy formulation, and if they do, are subtle. That wasn’t true this week when the office of the First Lady called for the firing of Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel, who reported to National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Mrs. Trump’s office said, “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.”
A Wall Street Journal report suggests that the First Lady’s office had had it with Ricardel's behavior.
The Wall Street Journal reported, “The president became involved in that decision at the urging of Mrs. Trump, whose staff battled with Ms. Ricardel during the first lady’s trip to Africa last month over seating on the plane and requests to use National Security Council resources, according to people familiar with the matter.”
“The first lady’s team told the president that they suspect Ms. Ricardel is behind some negative stories about Mrs. Trump and her staff.”
Politico also reports that Ricardel may also be responsible for a breakdown in communication between the Pentagon and NSC because of conflicts with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Ricardel is a tough bureaucratic infighter and supports more of a traditional Republican foreign policy than John Bolton does.
She has also had several run-ins with Washington power brokers. Ricardel was part of Donald Trump's presidential transition team as a Department of Defense advisor. She was looked at for positions in the new administration in the Defense and State Departments, but was twice blocked based upon past bureaucratic run-ins, in the first instance by Mattis and in the second by Department of State Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin. Ricardel had blocked some nominees wanted by Mattis because they had Democratic backgrounds.
In the end, she lasted only 24 hours after the First Lady pushed for her ousting.
Personality issues may also account for other White House shakeups, namely Chief of Staff John Kelly and DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
CoS Kelly has made it clear that he is willing to resign and talk of his departure has been common. However, it seems that his presence has settled the White House Staff after a first year of turmoil.
However talk of his departure has grown since reports of his heated argument with National Security Advisor John Bolton.
The issue was border security and Kelly supported the more lenient position of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Bolton favored a stricter policy that would close the border. The issue became hotter when Bolton reportedly accused Kelly of having an affair with Nielsen, who served as Kelly’s deputy when Kelly was in charge of DHS.
After the blowup, aides whispered privately that one of the men might leave the White House given the deep disagreement over the border. The fact that the President sided with Bolton only added to Kelly's fury.
This isn't the first time Nielsen's handling of border security has been scrutinized by the Trump White House. Trump and Nielsen got into a heated argument during a Cabinet meeting in May over border security, a source with knowledge told CNN.
Trump said he didn't think she was doing enough to secure the border and two people told The New York Times, which first reported the argument, that Nielsen drafted a resignation letter over the matter.
If Kelly leaves the White House the top choice for the position of Chief of Staff is Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers. Ayers is only 36, but enjoys warm relations with some of the most important figures in Trump’s White House: his eldest son, Don Jr., his eldest daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Ayer also enjoys support among outside advisers who have Trump’s ear but have clashed with Kelly when he sought to regulate access to the president.
Ayer has proven to be a settling influence on the Pence team – something needed in the Trump White House. He also managed Pence’s 2018 campaign strategy, which impressed Trump.
Trump and Ayers had already discussed the chief of staff job in the early summer, according to a former senior administration official, but at the time it was unclear when Kelly would depart. And Trump spent the summer asking friends, White House advisers and former aides: “What do we think about Nick?” - an indication he is privately considering a staff shake-up.
Ayers first impressed Ivanka Trump, Kushner and then-Trump campaign chairman Steve Bannon as an aide to Pence during the presidential campaign. All three later encouraged Ayers to join the White House as a replacement for Pence’s first chief of staff, Josh Pitcock. If Ayers took over as chief of staff, he would be seen by some Trump allies as an improvement over Kelly, since he has far greater political influence and connections.
As for a DHS choice to replace Nielsen, Trump is considering Thomas Homan, former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to succeed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, three people familiar with the process told Politico.
Homan is a hardliner on immigration and immigration is an important issue for Trump’s voter base and necessary for his reelection in 2020.
Homan once recommended charging so-called sanctuary city politicians “with crimes” and has pugnaciously defended even Trump’s most controversial immigration moves, including separating children from their parents at the border.
In addition to Homan, other potential Nielsen replacements include Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and David Pekoske, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Both have already been confirmed by the Senate.
The president is also considering Maj. Gen. Vincent Coglianese, who currently runs the Marine Corps Installations Command, according to two people familiar with the process. One of Coglianese’s sons serves as editorial director at the Daily Caller, a conservative outlet known for its favorable news coverage of the Trump administration.
Clearly, these resignations and replacements will fit Trump’s agenda. However, there appears to be another personality in the changes – National Security Advisor John Bolton.
It was Bolton who precipitated the heated argument with Kelly over Nielsen – an argument that Trump sided with Bolton on.
If Nielsen or Kelly resign or are fired, Bolton’s hand will be in it.
We can also be sure that the departure of Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel, at least had Bolton’s acquiescence. And we can be sure that the replacement will be in tune with Bolton’s policies.
This means that Bolton’s policies will have more support in the new Trump Administration. Bolton has been called a neoconservative and is an advocate for regime change in Iran and North Korea and repeatedly called for the termination of the Iran deal. He has continuously supported military action and regime change in Syria.
Bolton is skeptical of international organizations and international law, believing them to endanger American sovereignty, and does not believe they have legitimate authority under the U.S. Constitution. He is a critic of the European Union and praised Britain’s vote to leave it.
Bolton is known for his strong support for Israel. Bolton opposed the two-state solution. He is also a supporter of Taiwan, which has increased tension with China.
These are all policies that Trump advocates, which means that some of his new advisers will merely echo his opinions, instead of providing opposing opinions.
If this proves to be true, expect Trump’s policies in the run-up to the 2020 election to be less nuanced and more in line with his campaign promises.