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Two Years In, Turnover In Trump’s Cabinet Is Still Historically High

It took less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency for members of his Cabinet to start leaving their jobs: In 2017, chief of staff Reince Priebus and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price called it quits, while Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly left his post to succeed Priebus. The departures continued to mount in 2018, as high-profile Cabinet members like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt headed for the exits. Then, on Dec. 31, three Cabinet-level officials — Kelly, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — departed the Trump administration. Most recently, only a couple of days into 2019, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke followed them out the door.

About halfway through President Trump’s term seems like a good time to check in once again on the rate of turnover in his Cabinet compared with past presidents. Once again, it is unprecedented in recent history. Through this point in their presidencies, none of the preceding six presidents had weathered more turnover in the 24 offices that constitute Trump’s Cabinet1 than Trump has. As of Jan. 8, there had already been 12 staffing changes to his Cabinet. The president with the next-highest number at this point in his presidency was Bill Clinton, with only six. In fact, by Jan. 8 of the third year of the previous six administrations combined, just 16 people had left these offices.

Typically, people don’t start departing en masse until a president’s second term. All four of the two-term presidents we looked at — Ronald Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — didn’t reach 12 personnel changes until after they were re-elected. And it still took the one-term presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, four years in office to pass the 12-departure mark.

In the chart above, we’ve tallied how many people departed from one of the offices in Trump’s Cabinet in each of the last seven presidential administrations by calendar year. (Close readers of FiveThirtyEight may notice that this chart is slightly different from ones that we’ve published in previous articles. That’s because those earlier stories gauged turnover by when a new Cabinet member replaced someone who left, rather than the initial departure date.) A few additional things to keep in mind:

  • We didn’t include any roles that were part of the Cabinets of other presidents but not part of Trump’s. For example, Clinton included the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in his Cabinet, but because the so-called “drug czar” isn’t in Trump’s Cabinet, we didn’t include that office’s turnover in Clinton’s totals.
  • Similarly, a few of the jobs in Trump’s Cabinet didn’t exist in previous administrations — for example, the posts of secretary of homeland security and director of national intelligence were created during the George W. Bush administration — which means that earlier presidents had fewer positions available to turn over, potentially deflating their totals in the chart.
  • Our research doesn’t include acting Cabinet members who stepped aside for permanent appointees.
  • People who left one Cabinet position to join another are included as departures. For instance, when Kelly left the Homeland Security Department to become Trump’s chief of staff, that counted as a departure even though he stayed in the Cabinet. Likewise, the 1985 job swap of Treasury Secretary-turned-chief of staff Don Regan and chief of staff-turned-Treasury Secretary James Baker was noted as two departures in Reagan’s fifth year.

This last point provides a bit of an asterisk for Trump: His Cabinet turnover isn’t quite as high as it looks because two of his Cabinet members who left their jobs did so to assume another Cabinet-level post. (In addition to Kelly, Mike Pompeo went from being CIA director to secretary of state — a position he still occupies.) Nevertheless, 10 of the 24 people in Trump’s original Cabinet are gone, and only 13 are holding their original positions. And at the rate they’re going, we may not have to wait long for even more to exit.

Footnotes

  1. Not every president designates the same positions to be in the Cabinet. Here is a list of the offices in Trump’s.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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