Stability or chaos: The turnover rate in the Biden vs. Trump Cabinets speaks for itself

The success or failure of a presidency can often depend on the people chosen for Cabinet-level posts. President Joe Biden has just passed the three-year mark of his first term. His administration has been a model of stability and competence. This follows the four years of chaos and incompetence that marked Donald Trump’s miserable administration.

And that point is clear when you look at the turnover rate in both administrations among the 15 Cabinet members in the line of succession for the presidency as well as the nine additional Cabinet-level positions.

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Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a visiting fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, has written detailed analyses on overall staff turnover in the Trump administration and the Biden administration. There’s Biden, who kept his promise to make his Cabinet the most diverse in U.S. history with more women and members of color, all of whom had considerable political experience. His Cabinet includes Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to be a Cabinet-level secretary, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a president’s Cabinet.

And so far only one Cabinet member has resignedLabor Secretary Marty Walsh, the former Boston mayor, who stepped down in March 2023. A longtime Boston Bruins fan, Walsh accepted an offer to become executive director of the NHL Players’ Association. Julie Su is serving as acting labor secretary because the Senate has yet to confirm her nomination.

And just two of the nine additional Cabinet-level positions have seen change. Longtime Biden aide Ron Klain stepped down as White House chief of staff at the mid-point of Biden’s term, and was immediately replaced by Jeff Zients, who effectively ran Biden’s COVID-19 response operation. He remains in the post.

The second is Cecilia Rouse, the first Black woman to serve as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, resigned in March 2023 to return to Princeton University and resume her work as a professor of economics and public affairs. She was replaced by longtime Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein.

That means that 21 of 24 of Biden’s original appointees remain in their positions heading into the fourth year of his term. National Journal White House correspondent George E. Condon Jr. wrote:

In his three years in office, the president has been determined to keep his top team mostly intact, and that team in turn has been determined to avoid the leaks, backstabbing, and controversy that have led to purges and makeovers in almost all the nine presidencies Biden has witnessed in his half century in Washington.

National Journal review of past administrations found that one has to go back 171 years to find a more stable first-term administration.”

Condon wrote that Biden’s 87.5% retention rate in these top positions is topped in U.S. presidential history only by Franklin Pierce, elected in 1852, whose seven-member Cabinet remained intact during his four-year term. Condon added:

The contrast is particularly sharp compared with Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, whose Cabinet chaos was matched by no president in almost two centuries. By the end of his term in office, only four of Trump’s original 15 Cabinet members remained and only one of nine Cabinet-level appointees had survived. His retention rate of 20.8 percent exceeded only the president whose picture he brought to the Oval Office—Andrew Jackson, who had only one of six Cabinet members remaining at the end of his first term.

In January 2023, midway through Biden’s term. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told NBC News, “Not one single member of the Cabinet has left in disgrace, is writing a tell-all book or has bad-mouthed the president. There are no leaks, no backbiting, nothing.”

Only recently has there been a major controversy surrounding a member of Biden’s Cabinet which is under investigationDefense Secretary Lloyd Austin was criticized for his failure to notify the White House, Congress, and the media about his hospitalization resulting from complications related to a procedure to treat prostate cancer.

And House Republicans have scheduled a Homeland Security Committee meeting for Jan. 30 to mark up articles of impeachment for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for his handling of border policy. Democrats have accused House Republicans of launching a “baseless political attack” instead of focusing on a bipartisan solution to the immigration crisis, Axios reported.

Presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” told National Journal:

“Trump’s Cabinet chaos reflected the broader chaos in government. It’s a reason why most people elected Biden. It was because they felt like he would bring calmness and stability back to government and back to the nation.”

She added that this stability is one of the reasons why Biden “has been able to be effective.”

“Up to now, he’s not spending political capital or time on having to get new candidates appointed or finding replacements. It frees up mental space and bandwidth and political capital to get things done,” she said.

Trump promised to bring “the best and the brightest” to his administration. He also said he would run his administration like his business. Unfortunately, as shown in a New York civil lawsuit in which Trump faces up to $370 million in penalties, there was persistent fraud in his business dealings.

And, as The New York Times noted, Trump “created a  cabinet of mostly wealthy, white men with limited experience in government, mirroring himself.”

Vox wrote in May 2017:

CEOs don’t persuade people; they dictate. And they fire those who refuse to carry out their demands. Even more importantly, a CEO of a privately held company (like the Trump organization) operates like a king over his personal fiefdom. His employees work for him; they have no higher obligation to shareholders.

And three years later, during the 2020 campaign, The Hill wrote about just how tumultuous the Trump administration had been:

Trump operates like the federal government is just a backdrop for a never-ending episode of “The Apprentice,” except that he dominates every scene. And, just like “The Apprentice,” Trump is constantly trying to make every scene more outrageous than the one before. After all, dull is death in the TV business.

Trump fired some Cabinet members he considered disloyal or incompetent by his standards. Others resigned because of differences over policy issues.

The turnover in the Trump administration began less than a month after his inauguration when national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign following claims he misled the administration over his communications with Russia’s ambassador. In December 2020, Trump pardoned Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Trump then ran through three more national security advisers—H.R. McMaster, John Bolton, and Robert O’ Brien. Bolton, who was fired over policy differences, has warned that Trump could do  “irreparable” damage to the country if elected president again.

There were four White House chiefs of staff under Trump: Reince Priebus, John Kelly, Mick Mulvaney, and Mark Meadows.    

Meadows was among the 19 people indicted with Trump in the criminal racketeering case brought by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia. 

Kelly became an outspoken critic of Trump. CNN reported that Kelly told friends this about Trump:

“The depths of his (Trump’s) dishonesty is just astounding to me. The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it’s more pathetic than anything else. He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life,” the retired Marine general has told friends, CNN has learned.

Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO, after he called the president “a moron.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called Trump “an idiot,” while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the president had “the understanding of a fifth or six grader,” according to Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House.” Mnuchin was one of the few Cabinet members to survive four years in the Trump administration.  

Three of Trump’s Cabinet members left after being linked to scandals involving misuse of government funds for personal purposes: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom PriceSecretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin. Zinke, of Montana, is now a member of the House GOP caucus.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced out in November 2018, because he recused himself and appointed a special counsel, Robert  Mueller, to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. His successor, William Barr, resigned in December 2020 after debunking Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the presidential  election.

And then, with just weeks left in Trump’s term, two more Cabinet members—Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—were among the administration officials who resigned after the mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump has since derisively referred to Chao, the wife of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, in social media posts as “Coco Chow,” which she criticized as an anti-Asian slur.

In July 2023, NBC News reached out to 44 of the dozens of people who served in Cabinet-level positions during Trump’s term, not all of whom responded. A total of four publicly said they support his reelection bid. Several were coy about where they stood. And there were some who “outright oppose his bid for the GOP nomination or are adamant that they don’t want him back in power.”

“I have made clear that I strongly oppose Trump for the nomination and will not endorse Trump,” former Attorney General Bill Barr told NBC News. Asked how he would vote if the general election pits Trump against President Joe Biden, a Democrat, Barr said: “I’ll jump off that bridge when I get to it.”

At the time, some former Cabinet members told NBC that they were supporting other candidates in the Republican primary. Former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, challenged Trump for the nomination. Haley is hanging on in the primary race by a thread.

It’s not clear how many of these former Cabinet members will join the stampede within the GOP to endorse Trump now that he’s won the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, especially since he’s been acting like a Mafia don in threatening Republicans who oppose him.

But on the third anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was fired by Trump on Nov. 9, 2020, issued this warning about the former president in an interview on CNN.

“I do regard him as a threat to democracy, democracy as we know it, our institutions, our political culture, all those things that make America great and have defined us as, you know, the oldest democracy on this planet,” Esper said.

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