White House goes through dizzying change in staff
President Trump has replaced his chief of staff, press secretary, legislative affairs director and domestic policy adviser and retooled his communications shop in a span of about three months and will soon bid goodbye to two top economic advisers.
Trump’s White House has experienced a dizzying amount of staffing changes that began following his impeachment acquittal and seemed to accelerate with the arrival of new chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Trump has presided over a record amount of turnover in the Cabinet and senior levels of his administration, demonstrating a penchant for removing and replacing top officials as well as swapping existing staff into new roles.
But the recent staffing shake-ups have been striking particularly because of the proximity to the 2020 presidential election. Officials working in past administrations have been informally urged to hold off on leaving their roles in an election year until the ballots are cast in November.
“In the Bush administration, word basically went out a year before the election saying if you were going to leave, do it now, don’t wait until the summer of the election,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked as a White House spokesman during George W. Bush’s second term.
“Running for reelection is a hard move without having staff churn inside the White House,” Conant continued.
The changes have come as the Trump administration has grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and as Trump embarks on an increasingly uphill battle for reelection. Conant argued that some of the policy staff may have stayed on longer in order to help assist in the early weeks of the pandemic.
The staffing shuffles have been attributed in part to Meadows’s arrival in April, which was followed almost immediately by the naming of Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, as White House press secretary.
Trump’s domestic policy adviser of more than a year, Joe Grogan, left his position in government at the end of May, and he was thereafter replaced by Brooke Rollins, who previously led the Office of American Innovation, in an acting capacity. Trump also bid farewell to Eric Ueland, his legislative affairs director, who took a role at the State Department, promoting his deputy, Amy Swonger to replace him on an acting basis.
News broke this week that Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to Trump who returned temporarily to the White House in March to help with the response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, would leave his position this summer. That was followed by the announcement that Tomas Philipson would leave his position as acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) at the end of June to return to a tenured post at the University of Chicago.
Hogan Gidley, a top White House spokesman, was also announced as the Trump campaign’s new national press secretary this week.
Allies of the White House don’t view the individual changes as particularly significant. One former White House official said it wasn’t uncommon for new staffers to be brought in under a chief of staff, commonly regarded as one of the more powerful advisers, and for staffers like Gidley to dispatch to the campaign side.
“When there is turnover at the top it’s not uncommon for that [to] ripple through an organization,” said the former official. “It’s also not uncommon for [White House] staff to decamp for the re-elect. In this case it’s going to be an all hands-on deck effort to try to turn things around.”
Trump has been struggling in the polls against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Recent surveys have shown Biden leading Trump nationally by as many as 14 percentage points as well as topping the incumbent president in swing states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Trump campaign has experienced staffing changes of its own, recently promoting former White House political director Bill Stepien to deputy campaign manager and bringing back Jason Miller, who worked on the 2016 campaign.
A central issue of Trump’s reelection effort is the U.S. economy, which has been devastated by the coronavirus closures. Trump has been eager for states to reopen businesses and touted a surprise May jobs report showing economic growth, meanwhile downplaying the threat from the virus as states experience spikes in cases.
Hassett’s departure, while expected, will rob the White House of a key voice who along with economic adviser Larry Kudlow has frequently appeared on television to discuss the administration’s economic agenda.
Experts and some former officials describe the White House staff changes taken together as likely disruptive to what is already viewed as a dysfunctional organization. The White House is a complex organism, employing thousands of people in offices focused on everything from national security to science to economics, and those who have worked in the executive branch say it takes newcomers a considerable amount of time to find their footing.
“It takes a while to understand how the mechanics of government run,” said Chris Lu, who served as White House cabinet secretary under Obama during his first term. “You need to have that kind of institutional memory when you’re dealing with crises.”
“It certainly doesn’t improve their ability to respond to these crises,” Lu added, referring to the pandemic and domestic unrest that has rippled through cities after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in police custody.
It could also be more difficult to fill vacated positions so close to the election on a permanent basis. The White House has yet to announce a replacement for Philipson, who will leave at the end of the month.
“The recruiting pool shrinks over time especially now when it’s not clear who will win the election,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who researches White House staffing and turnover. “If you’re an economist you’re stepping into one of the biggest crises definitely since 2009.”
Meadows, who replaced Mick Mulvaney, has earned positive marks for his first months on the job from some within the White House. One White House official described the chief of staff as bringing additional “structure and prioritization” to the domestic policy and legislative affairs teams and said his relationships on Capitol Hill have been an asset in negotiations like the coronavirus stimulus talks.
But other observers have been much more critical. Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” noted that Meadows presided over recent controversies including Trump’s photo-op in Lafayette Square and argued Trump had not empowered his new chief of staff to do his job effectively.
“Every White House, every president learns the hard way that you cannot govern effectively without empowering a chief of staff to execute your agenda and tell you what you don’t want to hear,” Whipple said. “No amount of rearranging of chairs in the West Wing will help when the problem is at the top.”
Trump and others close to the White House have been pleased with McEnany, who brought back the press briefing and has used her appearances to offer a vigorous defense of the president and throw barbs at the media. McEnany’s arrival was described by one former official as a clear nod to the burgeoning reelection campaign.
“It was time to get an attack dog. And the president loves that,” the former official said.
But ultimately, the staffing changes and departures mean less in a White House where policy is sometimes made by tweet and the president formulates decisions absent a traditional process.
“Trump is just such a unique president that the staff seems less important,” said Conant. “He makes decisions independent of any staff recommendations a lot of the time and the communications office doesn’t always seem like it’s on the same page as him.”
Juliegrace Brufke and Brett Samuels contributed.