Why Trump's Unprecedented Cabinet Turnover Matters

The group of people both willing and able to work for the president is getting smaller.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and White House chief of staff John Kelly are two of several senior administration officials rumored to be on their way out.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and White House chief of staff John Kelly are two of several senior administration officials rumored to be on their way out.

With the midterm elections now behind him, President Donald Trump is expected to make some major changes to his Cabinet. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already gotten the boot. And White House insiders have reportedly predicted there may be as many as five more Cabinet officials who go — whether by Trump’s firing or their resignations — in the coming weeks.

“A lot of administrations make changes after the midterms,” Trump recently said. He’s right. Most administrations undergo personnel changes after an election. But the Trump White House has been a revolving door from the start — a reflection of both the president’s mercurial temperament and the type of people drawn to him.

As NPR noted in March, in little more than a year in office, Trump had already set a record for the most Cabinet replacements by a first-term president in the past 100 years. If the post-midterm shakeups proceed as predicted, it would amount to what Politico’s Nancy Cook described as “the highest turnover rate in recent history.” And that’s talking about only the Cabinet. Among the top-level staff at the Trump White House, the pace of departures and replacements has also been record setting.

None of this should be surprising from a man who rose to fame in part by yelling “You’re fired,” although it’s hardly reassuring about the level of normality inside the West Wing. Yet as the number of Republicans willing to work for this president continues to dwindle, the deeper cause for concern is in how those in the thinning ranks — in the White House and in the party more broadly — demonstrate their acceptability to Trump. Rather than touting their record of leadership or mastery of policy, those vying for his favor instead are auditioning for the president by signaling their unquestioning loyalty and their penchant for Trumpian outrageousness.

In the absence of any coherent political philosophy from Trump, that’s a recipe for even more rampant toadyism around a president who has shown disturbingly authoritarian impulses. Given his legal troubles, it’s also likely to yield increased obstruction and deeper corruption in the White House. In Congress, a smaller but more loyalist Republican minority has shown no signs of reversing the party’s total capitulation to Trumpism.

Trump’s appointment of Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general after the firing of Sessions has made this situation obvious. Whitaker won the spot (which Trump doesn’t seem to be treating as temporary) by voicing his opposition to the Mueller investigation in a series of public statements. Trump, who seems incapable of playing his cards close to his chest, nearly admitted as much in an interview with the conservative Daily Caller.

The appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general is a troubling indication of the direction the Trump presidency is headed.
The appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general is a troubling indication of the direction the Trump presidency is headed.

Of course, flouting the Constitution and suggesting that Trump stands above the law isn’t the only way to attract the president’s attention. Adopting his conspiratorial thinking and anti-democratic tendencies also endears politicians to the president. Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi has seized on the state’s election recounts to make her case to Trump. She blasted Florida law enforcement officials for not investigating alleged voting irregularities in the state, despite no evidence of voter fraud — a move plainly designed to impress Trump by repeating his farfetched fantasies at the expense of American democracy. She is now rumored to be his choice for his next secretary of homeland security if he pushes out Kirstjen Nielsen.

He also cottons to those who share his pugilistic style of politics. The worst example of that has been Trump’s praise for Greg Gianforte, the Republican congressman from Montana who won his special election last year just one day after he physically assaulted a reporter. Campaigning there this October, Trump hailed Gianforte as a “tough cookie.” “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy,” Trump enthused before a cheering crowd in Missoula.

But nothing seems to delight Trump more than flattery, not only because his insatiable ego depends on it but also because he intuitively understands that those who mindlessly praise him have already decided they will side with him no matter what he does. For Trump, the sycophants are his first line of defense.

For the sycophants, Trump’s endorsement can be what pushes them over the goal line. That was the calculation made by Ron DeSantis, Florida’s new governor-elect. In the Republican primary, DeSantis at first faced a double-digit deficit against Adam Putnam, a respected politician from a prominent Florida family. Needing a miracle, DeSantis went straight to Trump, courting him with a heavy dose of puffery during a ride aboard Air Force One. After Trump tweeted his endorsement, DeSantis cruised to a 20-point victory in the primary.

With Trump’s help, DeSantis was able to win without ever bothering to develop any clear policy positions — not a requirement for Trump voters. The Tampa Bay Times reported shortly after the primary that DeSantis had canceled an interview with Florida reporters because he was still figuring out his platform for the general election. He never got around to that. Instead, he spent his time making regular appearances on Fox News and filming a creepy television ad that showed him indoctrinating his children into Trumpism. DeSantis won a close election to Democrat Andrew Gillum, and it remains unclear what the incoming governor stands for beyond a blind allegiance to Trump.

Whether angling for a position in his administration or simply courting his favor, such examples underscore Trump’s corrosive influence on American politics. In choosing combative style over substance, embracing conspiratorial fury over rational discourse and pledging fealty to the president rather than the Constitution, Trump’s troops are reinforcing Trumpism at the very moment the Republicans ought to be re-evaluating its effectiveness. The mixed results for the candidates he endorsed in 2018 surely give reason for some of them to reconsider.

The Democrats’ big midterm gains also should humble the president. But throughout his personal life, his business dealings and now his presidency, he has shown he cannot be chastened. He can only be provoked.

Trump is only more likely to double down on his style in the next two years, emboldened by the tightening circle of absolute loyalists around him. What that means for his political success remains uncertain. The frightening consequences for American democracy, however, are already far too apparent.

Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”

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