If job security is priority, then joining the Trump administration probably isn’t for you.
By CNN’s count, more than 30 Cabinet secretaries, senior staffers and advisers, respectively, have been hired and fired (or forced out, or resigned) from the White House during President Donald Trump’s nearly 14 months in office.
Some left under a cloud of confusion, others in a hail of recrimination, but almost all amid a storm of some sort, from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the first big-name appointee to be sacked, to — well, let’s see. Chief of staff John Kelly told staffers on Friday that reports of an impending shake-up had been exaggerated. (History tells us to regard this statement with healthy skepticism.)
Family members aside, there have been a handful of survivors. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President and his former campaign manager, seems to have carved out a lasting place. Attorney General Jeff Sessions carries on — shielded, oddly enough, by some of the same decisions that led Trump to turn on him — while Kelly has eluded so many predicted ousters that logic suggests his foothold is stronger than many believe.
Or not! No one really knows.
In any event, we’ve seen enough Trump aides come and go that the warning signs are easy enough to read:
1. No (public) sign at all!
Silence doesn’t always mean you’re golden.
Both former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned after it was revealed two ex-wives had accused him of abuse (which he denies), and erstwhile body man John McEntee, marched out of the White House because of security clearance issues, departed with little or no warning. McEntee was reportedly escorted off the job in a hurry, while Porter’s goodbye was a bit more drawn out. Neither was particularly well-known outside Washington. (Though McEntee had a brush with fame in a previous life.)
Their quiet exits tell us more than you might think. Often, they are as much of a surprise to White House staff as reporters and observers — flesh-and-blood symbols of the organizational distress inside administration and a reminder that no one is safe, not from Trump or even themselves.
2. Receive a public vote of confidence
Sports fans know it well — “the dreaded vote of confidence,” a public proclamation of support that, in reality, is the last step along the path to a manager’s firing.
Flynn was at the center of a growing controversy over his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and questions (now answered in the affirmative) over whether he’d misled administration officials about them, when Conway came out in his defense in the late afternoon of February 13, 2017.
“Gen. Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the President,” she told MSNBC about six hours before he was axed. (Sean Spicer, press secretary at the time, had been more circumspect, saying in a state around when Conway was on TV, “The president is evaluating the situation.”)
The recently departed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got a dose of this, though farther out from his actual firing. With rumors swirling over his potential departure back in December 2017, Trump denied it, calling the reports “FAKE NEWS” and insisting in a tweet, “He’s not leaving.” A couple months earlier, during an October visit to Las Vegas after the mass shooting there, he declared, “Total confidence in Rex. I have total confidence.”
On Tuesday, Trump ditched him in a tweet.
3. Be the subject of too much press attention
Good, bad or ugly, it’s well-established that Trump wants his staff, whether they run a massive federal agency or keep a small office in the West Wing, to stay out of the headlines — his headlines. The list of former aides and secretaries who first saw their names and faces on magazine or tabloid covers then found themselves out of work is estimable.
Most notable among them were Anthony Scaramucci, who spent 10 wild days as communications director in late July 2017, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was forced out a few weeks later that August.
“The Mooch” got his job in a bid to improve relations with the press, then lost it after delivering a rollicking, expletive-stuffed interview (or monologue?) to The New Yorker. In reality, Scaramucci’s campaign to clear the White House decks of his rivals was hardly uncommon, he just did it on the record — spawning literally thousands of recaps, takes and related stories.
Bannon’s issues with Trump now, post-“Fire and Fury,” are different from the ones that led to his firing, a slow-building rift that combined a toxic internal power struggle and the grinding sense that he was overshadowing the boss. Note to current and future administration officials, if you see yourself on the cover of Time Magazine and/or “Saturday Night Live,” you might next see yourself out. (Kelly, Conway and Javanka are exceptions here — at least, so far.)
4. Get caught at the center of a scandal that keeps getting worse
Remember Tom Price, the high-flying former health and human services secretary?
He resigned in late September of 2017 after details emerged about his taste for traveling via private jet and, in the process, racking up big bills on the taxpayers’ tab. In particular, there was a trip from Washington to Philadelphia, a brief and inexpensive journey typically made by train or car.
“I was disappointed because I didn’t like it, cosmetically or otherwise,” Trump said less than an hour before Price resigned. “I was disappointed.”
This script is especially relevant now as multiple department secretaries, including but not limited to Treasury’s Steve Mnuchin and David Shulkin at Veterans Affairs, struggle to explain their pricey (and Price-y) travel expenditures.
5. Be seen as underperforming (and not named, related or totally loyal to Trump)
His performance hasn’t been maligned, at least not widely, but national security adviser H.R. McMaster is reportedly on the ropes. We know it’s legit because multiple sources say so, but also due to the nature of his relationship with Trump — which isn’t close or fawning. This one was always destined to end badly.
Speaking of which, consider the cases of Reince Priebus, the first chief of staff, and Spicer. Neither lit it up in their jobs. Priebus didn’t deliver on the Obamcare repeal front and Spicer became a point of fun, less than a feared or charismatic character, for his daily briefings.
But more importantly, both came from and were of the Republican National Committee, or party establishment. Trump obviously warmed to them at some point, but they had careers in politics before The Candidate came down the golden escalator.
Put it all together and the writing, in retrospect, was on the wall well before their final spirals began. Spicer left after Scaramucci came on against his wishes. Priebus was sent away, literally, after months spent struggling to wrangle a weird and wild new White House.
6. Disagree with the President
Tillerson and Trump had a fundamental difference of opinion on the Iran nuclear deal. It was one of a handful of gulfs they never quite bridged. What seemed to some like a “good cop, bad cop” routine with North Korea might qualify here, too. Maybe they were just two cops who didn’t agree?
Trump’s been similarly at odds with McMaster. Meanwhile, Gary Cohn wasn’t fired, but he left his post as top economic adviser after very publicly opposing the President’s new tariff policy. That Cohn pushed so hard for the successful Republican tax bill last year didn’t matter much when it came to the trade question. In this White House, jobs can disappear as fast as recent memories.