Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen exits Trump’s cabinet
Judging by the record of personnel failures, whoever selects President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members should be the next one fired. He’s doing a historically awful job of finding honest, ethical and skilled employees who can perform in the demanding jobs and satisfy a mercurial boss.
President-elect and candidate Donald Trump promised to have the most talented, smartest and best Cabinet in history. “We have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled,” Trump asserted the day before his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.
Trouble is, of those named to the new president’s Cabinet by that day, 12 of them are gone already, not counting six of his top 10 senior advisers.
That amounts to record turnover — six times the two-year turnover rate of presidents Clinton, Kennedy and Nixon, three times the cabinet turnover rate of Reagan, 12 times the rate of either Bush and faster than the zero turnover during the first two years of the Obama and Carter presidencies.
Remember Kathleen Sebelius, Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary who so badly botched the rollout of the president’s namesake health program? A few months later, she “decided” to depart to great words of presidential praise. No media drama for Obama, no resume smudge for Sebelius.
The Founding Fathers argued over establishing a presidential advisory council. But they couldn’t agree, so they left it open, subject to Senate approval. George Washington wanted advice on “interesting questions of national importance.” So, he chose a pretty high IQ Cabinet of four, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Like most things in government, the number grew over time to 15 with seven other “cabinet-level” positions such as UN ambassador that come and go at the table. Interior arrived in 1849, Agriculture in 1879, Veterans Affairs 1979, Homeland Security 2001.
Of course, every president is entitled to surround himself with his own Cabinet appointees, subject to Senate confirmation. But Trump’s secretaries were dispatched over a love of private charters, too much spending on personal perks, fudging expense accounts and annoying the boss who hand-picked them.
This rapid reality-show turnover of Trump Cabinet contestants has implications for government operations and the president’s agenda far beyond nameplates in cabinet meetings.
The Republican-controlled Senate must set aside its normal business, including confirming hundreds of lifetime judicial appointments, to argue for months over often controversial Cabinet nominees, some of which have ultimately been withdrawn.
The crucial departments involved are left without full-time management driving Trump policies and regulations. This opens the door to non-appointed government employees slow-walking Trump policies or even subverting them.
Currently, three important departments including Defense and Homeland Security are run by acting secretaries. Even Trump’s third chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is acting. Trump likes the uncertainty.
“There will always be change,” Trump declared last month. “And I think you want to see change.” Certainly, he does.
Change can be good, giving new minds opportunities. It can also be pointless.
Last fall, Trump tweeted that he wanted an abrupt withdrawal from Syria of all U.S. troops. That forced the resignation of the star of Trump’s Cabinet, Gen. James Mattis, who not only disagreed but wasn’t consulted. Weeks later, Trump quietly adopted Mattis’ policy of partial withdrawal anyway.
Many of us have experienced demanding bosses who, like Trump, believe that peremptory decisions, chaos and fear bring out the best in frightened workers. We’ll never know the untapped talent that declines his appointments.
To be honest, the minority of 2016 voters who marked the box by the Trump-Pence ticket are getting exactly what they wanted: an unorthodox, tough, even crude-talking Oval Office occupant who’s riding through the Washington swamp shooting up the town and its normal protocols and behaviors.
Even some non-Trump fans silently enjoy seeing the perennially smug, self-important Washington establishment and media riddled with bullet holes.
At some point, however, you’d think the delicious satisfaction of in-your-face-buster would give way to the hard, necessary realities of actually governing. Last fall, though, American voters reverted to their preferred style of divided government, with each party controlling, or at least in charge of, one chamber of Congress.
During these hyper-partisan days when political compromise and accommodation seem seditious, that virtually guarantees unproductive gridlock, which may be just fine with many. Getting nothing much done can seem better for now than letting the other side have much of anything.
The country will have to wait 81 weeks to see if, collectively, it still likes this set-up and this presidential style enough to keep Congress as is and extend Trump’s White House lease.
Or maybe by then the country will prefer a different style, a respite from tumult with perhaps a familiar Democrat who promises calm with change or maybe try yet another younger inexperienced face with enough empty voids in personality for us to fill in whatever we want to see.
The choice will be fairly stark — and the results likely close again — since Trump shows no sign of moderating his positions or behavior to expand support. It worked for him once.