Wave of exits from West Wing sparks talk of brain drain
Washington – President Donald Trump once presided over a reality show in which a key cast member exited each week. The same thing seems to be happening in his White House.
Trump’s West Wing has descended into a period of unparalleled tumult amid a wave of staff departures – and despite the president’s insistence that it’s a place of “no Chaos, only great Energy!” The latest key figure to announce an exit: Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who had clashed with Trump over trade policy.
Cohn’s departure has sparked internal fears of an even larger exodus, raising concerns in Washington of a coming “brain drain” around the president that will only make it more difficult to advance his already languishing policy agenda. While Trump has publicly tried to dispel perceptions of disarray, multiple White House officials said the president has been pushing anxious aides to stay on the job to try to staunch the bleeding.
“Everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump insisted during a news conference Tuesday. “They all want a piece of the Oval Office.”
The reality is a far different story.
Vacancies abound in the West Wing and the broader Trump administration – with some jobs never filled by the president and others subject to repeat openings. The job of White House communications director is soon to be empty again after the departure of its fourth occupant, Hope Hicks.
“They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who tracks senior-level staff turnover. Her analysis shows the Trump departure rate has reached 40 percent in just over a year.
“That kind of turnover creates a lot of disruption,” she added, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress. “You can’t really leave those behind to your successor.”
Turnover after a year in office is nothing new, but the Trump administration has churned through staff at a dizzying pace and allies are worried the situation could descend into a free-fall.
One White House official said there is concern about a potential “death spiral” in the West Wing – each departure heightening the sense of frenzy and expediting the next.
Multiple aides who are considering departing, all speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they didn’t have a clue whom the administration could find to fill their roles – adding that their desire to be team players has kept them on the job longer than planned. But a number warned they were nearing a breaking point.
“You have situations where people are stretched to take on more than one job,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.
She cited the example of Johnny DeStefano, who oversees the White House offices of personnel, public liaison, political affairs and intergovernmental affairs. “Those are four positions that in most administrations are each headed by an assistant to the president or a deputy assistant,” Kumar says.
The overlap between those qualified to work in the White House and those willing to take a job there has been shrinking too, according to White House officials and outside allies concerned about the slow pace of hires.
Trump’s mercurial decision-making practices, fears of being drawn into special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and a stalled legislative agenda are keeping top-flight talent on the outside.
“Most of all, President Trump hasn’t demonstrated a scrap of loyalty to current and former staff, and everyone knows it,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker John Boehner.
Trump acknowledged that he is a tough boss to work for, saying he enjoys watching his closest aides fight over policy.
“I like conflict,” he said Tuesday.
Since his days on the campaign, Trump has frequently and loudly complained about the quality of his staff, eager to fault his aides for any mishaps rather than shouldering responsibility. But his attacks on his own staff have sharpened in recent weeks, and he has suggested to confidants that he has few people at his side he can count on, according to two people familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations publicly.
Hicks’ departure will leave a gaping hole in the president’s inner circle. She served as both media gatekeeper and confidante.
A number of other aides have expressed worry about the legal implications – and steep bills – they could face if ensnared in the ongoing Russia probe. The probe has had a chilling effect on an already sluggish White House hiring process, according to officials, and there is wide concern that working for Trump could negatively affect career prospects.
Meanwhile, hopes for significant governing achievements in the coming years – akin to the GOP tax bill passed in December – are growing fleeting, as Republicans face a daunting electoral environment this fall.
Morale has plunged among West Wing aides in recent weeks. A number of staffers point to the departure of staff secretary Rob Porter in mid-February as beginning the tailspin. Not only was Porter a popular figure – allegations of domestic violence against him stunned staffers – but his departure undid some of the progress made on streamlining the White House’s chaotic policy process. A permanent replacement has yet to be named for the post.
Moreover, chief of staff John Kelly’s shifting explanations for how he handled the Porter matter – including, in the eyes of some, outright lies – damaged his reputation among staffers who had seen Kelly as a stabilizing force in the turbulent West Wing.
The administration has been understaffed from the onset, in part due to the president’s refusal to consider hiring even the most qualified Republicans if they opposed him during the campaign, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about personnel matters.
The White House did not immediately announce a replacement for Cohn, whose deputy, Jeremy Katz, departed in January. Among those under consideration for Cohn’s job are CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
In a riff Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie affair featuring journalists and officials, Trump engaged in a rare bout of self-deprecating humor, comparing the Oval Office job to his past career as the host of the reality-television show “The Apprentice.”
“In one job I had to manage a cut-throat cast of characters, desperate for TV time, totally unprepared for their roles and their jobs and each week afraid of having their asses fired, and the other job I was the host of a smash television hit.”
Several White House aides in the audience laughed in their tailcoats and ball gowns. But the joke, they knew, was on them.
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