FP Guide

The Revolving Door of Trump’s Apprentices

Who got the ax—and who resigned in the nick of time.

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

On Sept. 10, John Bolton worked his last day as national security advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. Bolton had run afoul of the president on several issues, including stalled negotiations with the Taliban, North Korea, and Iran. Bolton’s 520-day stint in office made him one of the shortest-serving national security advisors in modern history, but his case is far from unusual in the Trump administration.

Here are our top reads on some other dismissals and resignations from the Trump administration. This nonexhaustive list, the first in a two-part series, covers 2017 to mid-2018.

Sally Yates, Acting U.S. Attorney General
Dismissed Jan. 30, 2017
Yates was dismissed for insubordination after telling Justice Department officials not to defend the so-called Muslim travel ban. As Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll noted in a profile, her “act of defiance earned Yates the distinction of being one of the first officials fired by Trump. And it reminded the nation what principled resistance to the president should look like.”

Michael Flynn, U.S. National Security Advisor
Resigned Feb. 13, 2017
After new reports that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn resigned from office. “What very plausibly motivated the specific lies in the Flynn case,” reported Bob Bauer of the New York University School of Law in December that year, “was a need to deny specific, private commitments to Russia that tend to support the appearance of, and substantiate the affirmative case for, what might be termed a special understanding with the Putin regime.”

James Comey, Director of the FBI
Dismissed May 9, 2017
Comey learned about his firing from TV news reports while he was giving a talk in Los Angeles. The White House said that the dismissal was because the FBI rank and file, as well as the president, had lost confidence in the FBI director. But as the Lawfare editors Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes later explained, there’s little evidence to believe that the firing was for any other reason than Trump’s anger about the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary
Resigned July 21, 2017
Spicer resigned after Trump offered the role of White House communications director, a role Spicer had also been filling, to rival Anthony Scaramucci. Trump’s move, wrote Foreign Policy’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, was no surprise: “Trump often contradicted Spicer in his tweets and public comments, and White House aides leaked word of the president’s dissatisfaction with Spicer’s performance. Rumors swirled from early in Spicer’s tenure that Trump was unhappy with Spicer, especially after comedian Melissa McCarthy’s devastating caricature of him on Saturday Night Live as a petty, angry spokesman delivering fabricated facts.”

Reince Priebus, White House Chief of Staff
Resigned or Dismissed, July 27 or 28, 2017
Priebus made it just over eight months before he either resigned or was pushed out by Scaramucci. There was no love lost with Trump when Priebus left. As Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh wrote in his review of Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, the president “likened his former chief of staff Reince Priebus to ‘a little rat’ who ‘scurries around.’”

Anthony Scaramucci, White House Director of Communications
Dismissed, July 31, 2017
Scaramucci himself lasted only a few short days in office before being fired by Priebus’s replacement as White House chief of staff, John Kelly. Kelly, Foreign Policy’s Kate Brannen reported, may have been angry about Scaramucci’s recent profanity-laden interview with the New Yorker.

Steve Bannon, White House Strategist
Resigned or dismissed, August 2017
During the Trump presidential campaign and at the start of the Trump administration, Bannon was thought to be the ideologue behind many of the new president’s more extreme policies, including the travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. He eventually fell out of favor, though, perhaps because he had garnered more media attention than the president, wrote Dov Zakheim, a former U.S. undersecretary of defense. “Bannon will not be gone for long,” though, Zakheim predicted at the time. “He will continue to whisper in the president’s ear.”

Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to the President
Resigned or dismissed, Aug. 25, 2017
Gorka’s role in the White House was always a bit unclear, but it is well known that he was part of Bannon’s internal think tank in the executive office. During his tenure, whose end was likely related to Gorka’s failure to obtain a security clearance, he appeared “regularly on TV to defend Trump’s ban on travelers and refugees from Muslim-majority countries and elaborate on the president’s murky foreign policy,” the terrorism expert Colin Kahl explained earlier that year. He was “particularly fond of criticizing the Obama administration for not being manly enough to use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”

Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI
Resigned, Jan. 29, 2018
McCabe, who was briefly acting director of the FBI after Comey’s firing, was seemingly the victim of a campaign to discredit senior FBI officials whom the president feared would be witnesses against him during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election—a campaign the investigative reporter Murray Waas uncovered just days before McCabe’s resignation. Ominously, Waas noted, “after it was reported that McCabe planned to retire later this year, Trump tweeted: ‘FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!’”

Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council
Resigned, March 6, 2018
Cohn announced that he would resign shortly after Trump proposed new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from most every country. The impact of the proposed levies would be substantial, wrote OPEN founder Philippe Legrain at the time: “They would affect $46 billion of U.S. imports, some 2 percent of total U.S. goods imports.” And, “Perversely, the United States itself would be hit hardest.”

Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State
Dismissed, March 9 or 13, 2018.
Ever since Tillerson took office in 2017, wrote former Obama administration official Derek Chollet before the secretary of state’s firing, “most of the talk has been about when he’ll leave.” After all, Chollet noted, he took a job he didn’t want from a boss he didn’t know. Although he hung in for just over a year, in the end, he couldn’t satisfy the mercurial president. Perhaps it was for the best. “Tillerson is a proud man,” Chollet concluded, “and he has endured more humiliations at the hands of his own administration than any Secretary of State ever has or should.”

H.R. McMaster, National Security Advisor
Dismissed March 22, 2018
McMaster, reported the journalist Mark Perry, had “always had a tense relationship with President Donald Trump. But for the last several months his relationships with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom were once his strongest defenders, have deteriorated irreparably.” And that was likely what did the respected career Army officer in as national security advisor.

Michael Anton, Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications
Resigned, April 8, 2018
Anton, who left his post just before Trump’s third national security advisor, Bolton, took office, later reflected on the administration’s foreign policy in the pages of Foreign Policy. “Trump’s foreign policy is fundamentally a return to normalcy,” he concluded. “What we had before couldn’t go on. It is too generous to say it was going to end in disaster: It had already produced disaster. Getting back to some semblance of normal is necessary, good, and inevitable.”

Come back next week for the second part in this series.

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

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