The White House’s Revolving Door
Part 2 in our look at the Trump appointees who got the ax—and who resigned in the nick of time.
On Sept. 18, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the appointment of Robert O’Brien as the country’s next national security advisor. The news came a little over a week after the previous advisor, John Bolton, was pushed out.
O’Brien is a “relatively unknown figure” whose lack of experience may “solidify Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s role as the most influential foreign-policy figure within the administration,” according to reporting in Foreign Policy. O’Brien will have to work quickly to find his footing. If he doesn’t, his tenure may be cut just as short as those of some of his predecessors.
Here are our top reads on some other dismissals and resignations from the Trump administration. This nonexhaustive list, the second in a two-part series, covers mid-2018 through today.
Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
Resigned, July 5, 2018
Pruitt’s stint in the EPA was mired in controversy from the start, particularly over plans to take the United States out of the Paris climate change agreement. As Foreign Policy’s David Francis wrote just before the United States officially announced its intention to leave, “Trump, who promised to bring long-gone employment back to coal country, made leaving the Paris deal a cornerstone of his campaign. He said the agreement hindered U.S. job growth and put the United States at the mercy of other countries even though the accord lacks an enforcement mechanism.” In the end, it wasn’t the ensuing outrage over the U.S. departure that did Pruitt in. Rather, it was a slew of ethics scandals that forced him to resign.
Don McGahn, White House Counsel
Left office, Oct. 17, 2018
From pushing for the nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to fending off pressure from Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, McGahn’s stint as White House counsel was far from boring. From the earliest days of the administration, the investigative journalist Murray Waas pointed out in December 2017, McGahn had also been concerned about National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—concerns that proved very well founded.
Jeff Sessions, U.S. Attorney General
Resigned, Nov. 7, 2018
When Sessions resigned right after the 2018 midterm elections, it was after months of pressure from Trump, who was reportedly angry that Sessions had recused himself from any investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. “Whatever one might think of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s record …,” argued ZwillGen counsel Carrie Cordero in July 2017, “there is no denying this: In what will probably go down as the single most important decision of his professional life, he made the right call. Sessions was right to recuse himself.”
James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense
Resigned, Dec. 20, 2018
Mattis’s tenure was marked by several disagreements with his boss, but Trump’s announcement of an immediate withdrawal from Syria on Dec. 19, 2018, pushed Mattis over the edge. “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects,” he addressed the president in his resignation letter the next day, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” With his departure, the author Mark Perry wrote recently, there was one fewer adult in the room. Foreign Policy columnist Micah Zenko, however, cautioned that “Mattis’s legacy as defense secretary is unlikely to match the hagiographic eulogies the media immediately provided on his behalf.”
Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations
Left office, Dec. 31, 2018
When Haley announced her intention to resign in October 2018, explained Duke University’s Peter Feaver, she was the rare Trump cabinet official “set to end her time in office with her reputation enhanced, not diminished.” She was an effective spokesperson, he says, and weathered disagreements with the president. Although Haley dismissed hints that she would soon run for president, “I would be very surprised if ambassador to the United Nations is the last chapter of Haley’s political biography,” Feaver concluded.
John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff
Fired, Dec. 8, 2018
Kelly, another so-called adult in the room, seemed to lose Trump’s confidence starting in early 2018. After the November midterm elections, Trump was ready for a shake-up and announced that Kelly would be replaced. As Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll reported at the time, “Kelly, a former Marine general, is credited with bringing a measure of order to a chaotic White House, but he ultimately failed to win Trump’s confidence.” By the end of Kelly’s tenure, the two men were “reportedly no longer speaking to one another.”
Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior
Fired or resigned, Dec. 15, 2018
Zinke’s departure came amid a swirl of scandals and federal investigations, including into wrongdoing during a development project in Montana that Zinke’s foundation had been involved in. His dismissal was welcome news among environmentalists, although he wasn’t as odd a choice for his job as some other appointees, Foreign Policy’s Ruby Mellen argued in 2016. “Though a climate change skeptic, Zinke at least believes the government agency overseeing federal land should exist.”
Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Deputy Attorney General
Resigned, April 29, 2019
At some points in his tenure, Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller to lead the Russia investigation, became “a hatchet man” for the president, Groll wrote in May 2017. After all, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he cited Rosenstein’s judgement. But throughout his service, Rosenstein managed to keep Mueller’s investigation going (despite constant condemnation of the “witch hunt” by Trump) and stepped down soon after its conclusion.
Fiona Hill, Russia advisor
Resigned, August 2019
Hill, Trump’s top Russia advisor, had been credited with “trying to forge a tough approach to Moscow,” wrote Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon. With her departure, “the administration loses an experienced Russia hand widely respected by regional experts and policymakers on both sides of the aisle, a rarity in Trump’s hyperpoliticized Washington.”
Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning
Fired or resigned, Aug. 1, 2019
Skinner seems to have been pushed out of her role in Policy Planning over conflicts with other staff—a claim that some members of the department dispute. Earlier in the year, Paul Musgrave, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, criticized her attempts to define a Trump doctrine as reviving old ideas about civilizational conflict. “By creating an illusion of constant, unavoidable civilizational conflict,” he concluded, “Skinner and the administration are pursuing a needlessly aggressive policy—and one that, by confirming Chinese hard-liners’ worst-case scenarios, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Trump Doctrine really has resurrected civilizational thinking as its central plank, then the consequence could be sparking a rivalry that could risk civilization itself.”
John Bolton, National Security Advisor
Fired, Sept. 10, 2019
When Trump tweeted on Sept. 10 that he had fired Bolton, Bolton immediately shot back that he had offered to resign the day before. The he said-he said was just the latest indication of how dysfunctional the relationship between the president and his national security advisor had become. As Foreign Policy’s Groll, Gramer, and Lara Seligman reported that day, “Unlike Trump’s more trusted lieutenants, such as Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, Bolton never learned how to channel the president’s instincts in his public appearances. Pompeo and Pence eagerly defended the president in public, going on television to attempt an articulation of Trump’s ‘America First’ worldview. But Bolton never embraced that public role and in interviews declined to conceal the fact that he often disagreed with his boss.”