Growing Number of Trump Officials Resign Following Insurrection at Capitol

Wednesday’s assault was not the first time the president has incited violence, but for several administration officials, it was a step too far.

U.S. President Donald Trump watches as former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on Jan. 9, 2020.
U.S. President Donald Trump watches as former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao speaks at the White House in Washington, DC, on Jan. 9, 2020.

The clock is ticking on U.S. President Donald Trump’s time in office, with just under two weeks left until he departs. But some officials are bowing out early after Wednesday’s insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, a Trump-instigated assault carried out by a mob of his supporters who continue to dispute the results of the election.

The president’s friendliness toward violent supporters is nothing new. In 2017, he infamously branded white supremacists and neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people.” On Wednesday, he likewise referred to the Capitol’s ransackers as “very special” people.

But for some Trump administration officials who stomached Charlottesville and more, Wednesday’s siege was apparently the breaking point. In their resignations, most have invoked the necessity of a peaceful transfer of power, rather than any particular aversion to extremist tactics or Trump’s fitness for office. In fact, at least one State Department official—Gabriel Noronha—was fired Thursday for tweeting that “President Trump fomented an insurrectionist mob that attacked the Capitol” and is “entirely unfit to remain in office, and needs to go.”

Here is a growing list of now-former Trump officials who saw the insurrection as the final straw in a chaotic and controversial four-year tenure.

Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation

Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, became the first member of Trump’s cabinet to resign in response to Wednesday’s events, specifically citing Trump’s role in addressing his supporters in Washington.

Chao’s departure could be followed by other cabinet members, and it came just after a call from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for the cabinet and outgoing Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th amendment to remove Trump from office in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. Speculation was building ahead of the resignation: Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who himself condemned the violence at the Capitol as a “failed insurrection” on the Senate floor on Wednesday night.

“Yesterday, our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the president stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed,” Chao wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “As I’m sure is the case with many of you, it has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”

Some Democrats have branded Chao’s resignation—and others that might follow—as little more than an attempt at self-preservation. “If Sec. Chao objects to yesterday’s events this deeply, she should be working the cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment—not abdicating the seat that allows her to do so,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Thursday.

Chao joined the Trump administration shortly after Trump took office in January 2017 and is a veteran cabinet member: She served as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Under the Biden administration, she will be succeeded by former Democratic presidential contender and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Betsy DeVos, secretary of education

Late Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned in a letter sent to Trump—becoming the second cabinet member to step down after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao submitted her resignation earlier in the day.

DeVos’s departure followed a sternly worded tweet Wednesday, in which she warned that “the eyes of America’s children and students—the rising generation who will inherit the republic we leave them—are watching what is unfolding in Washington today.” DeVos urged her colleagues to “set a better example for them” and commit to a peaceful transition of power. 

In her letter to the president Thursday, DeVos largely praised the Trump administration’s legacy, calling her time in the West Wing “the honor of a lifetime.” Only briefly, and buried at the bottom of her statement, did DeVos broach Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol. “That behavior was unconscionable for our country. There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is an inflection point for me.”

In an administration where being mired in scandal is unremarkable, DeVos has still managed to stand out. She is the wealthiest member of the Trump cabinet—the DeVos family is worth $2 billion—and provoked the ire of many American educators through her inexperience with public education and blunderous 2017 confirmation hearings. Her tenure has been marked by controversial efforts to expand school choice and the work toward privatization of the U.S. education system.

Mick Mulvaney, special envoy to Northern Ireland and former White House chief of staff

Mick Mulvaney, who served as Trump’s chief of staff from January 2019 until March 2020, when he assumed a diplomatic posting as special envoy to Northern Ireland, resigned Wednesday night in a call to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Mulvaney’s resignation followed a slew of tweets on Wednesday in which he called for Trump to “discourage any violence immediately” and “be presidential.” When Trump released a video message—later deleted by Twitter, which shut down the president’s account for 12 hours due to its dangerous and false claims about the election—Mulvaney fired back that “the president’s tweet is not enough” and reiterated the importance of a peaceful transition of power.

“I can’t do it, I can’t stay,” Mulvaney vented in an interview with CNBC on Thursday morning. “We didn’t sign up for what you saw last night, we signed up for making America great again,” he said of Trump administration officials. But Mulvaney also suggested that other officials dismayed by Wednesday’s events are choosing to stay in their posts until Jan. 20 because they fear the president will appoint more subservient replacements in the interim.

Mulvaney is one of many Republicans who characterized Trump as dangerous throughout the 2016 GOP primary—calling him a “terrible human being”—but acquiesced fully as soon as he took office. Mulvaney played an integral role in the Ukraine scandal, which led to the president’s impeachment in December 2019, and he aided Trump in downplaying the coronavirus pandemic in its early days.

Matt Pottinger, deputy national security advisor

Matt Pottinger, a former journalist and U.S. marine who served on the National Security Council since January 2017, resigned late Wednesday in the wake of the violence at the Capitol. First as Asia director and later deputy national security advisor, Pottinger was an influential and hawkish behind-the-scenes figure in the White House, playing a leading role in shaping Trump’s China policy.

In May 2020, Pottinger captured attention by delivering a speech in Mandarin criticizing the Chinese government’s crackdown on free speech amid the coronavirus pandemic, as rhetoric between Beijing and Washington heated up. Last September, he defended administration policy to revoke the U.S. visas of more than 1,000 Chinese students and researchers, calling it a “surgical approach” to security risk. Pottinger has also been outspoken in condemning China’s mass incarceration of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, including remarks made in Mandarin.

Pottinger has not commented on his departure, but it comes amid speculation that other NSC officials including his boss, national security advisor Robert O’Brien, are also considering resignation. O’Brien, who has been especially loyal to Trump, reportedly returned to Washington from Florida on Wednesday night, with the capital still under curfew.

“Matt Pottinger has served the nation and the Administration with distinction for the past four years. His work lead [sic] to a great awakening in our country and around the world to the danger posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” O’Brien tweeted on Thursday. “Asking Matt Pottinger to serve as my deputy was my first act as NSA and it turned out to be one of my best decisions.”

Mark Vandroff, senior director for defense policy at the National Security Council

Mark Vandroff resigned from his spot on the NSC after Pottinger, a departure first reported by Defense News. Vandroff did not provide a reason for his decision.

“It has been a great pleasure to work with [U.S. national security advisor Robert O’Brien] on the staff of the NSC to implement the president’s policies and work to make America and the world safer and more secure,” Vandroff wrote in a statement to O’Brien.

Vandroff, who joined the NSC in March2020, is a former navy captain. He was involved in negotiating the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates which has since come to include Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco as well. Vandroff also pushed Washington to expand the U.S. naval fleet as part of a burgeoning arms race with China.

Ryan Tully, senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council

Ryan Tully was the second NSC official to resign, as first reported by Bloomberg on Thursday. Tully served as a deputy assistant to the president and the senior director for European and Russian affairs—making him Trump’s top Russia advisor, a high-turnover role he assumed last July. Tully was the fifth person to hold the position on the NSC in three and a half years, including Fiona Hill and Tim Morrison—who both testified in Trump’s impeachment inquiry.

Tully previously worked on the NSC as the senior advisor for arms control and the deputy senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense. He contributed to policies including the export ban on Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei and withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty with Russia.

Tyler Goodspeed, acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers

Tyler Goodspeed, one of Trump’s top economic advisors, also resigned on Thursday. He had served as the acting chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers since June 2020 after two abrupt resignations, and previously as the chief economist for macroeconomic policy and senior economist for macroeconomics of the council, which advises the president’s economic policy.

In an interview with the New York Times, Goodspeed said that “the events of yesterday made my position no longer tenable.”

John Costello, deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and security at the U.S. Department of Commerce

Costello resigned on Thursday morning, tweeting that Trump had “long disregarded and diminished the rule of law and the constitution.”

“Yesterday’s events were an unprecedented attack on the very core of our democracy—incited by a sitting president,” he said. “During my time in office, I strove to further cybersecurity and national security on the behalf of the American people. I am sorry to leave that work unfinished, but yesterday’s events leave me no choice.”

Costello’s stint in the Trump administration was a short one: He joined the Commerce Department in June 2020 after serving at various cybersecurity organizations.

Stephanie Grisham, chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump and former White House press secretary

Stephanie Grisham, First Lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff, resigned from her position on Wednesday afternoon. She did not provide an immediate reason for her departure, though it is assumed to be a response to Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol.

“It has been an honor to serve the country…I am very proud to have been a part of [Melania Trump’s] mission,” Grisham tweeted on Wednesday. She claimed to be “proud of the many accomplishments of this Administration.” Absent from her statement was any mention of Trump.

Grisham joined Team Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and worked as deputy press secretary under former Press Secretary Sean Spicer. In May 2019, Grisham became Trump’s third press secretary, a role in which she served until April 2020, when she joined the first lady’s staff. Grisham did not hold a single televised press conference during her entire tenure.

Sarah Matthews, deputy White House press secretary

Sarah Matthews was selected to serve as White House deputy press secretary by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany in June 2020. She resigned from her post Jan. 7 following the rioting on Capitol Hill.

In a statement obtained by ABC News, Matthews said: “As someone who worked in the halls of Congress I was deeply disturbed by what I saw today. I’ll be stepping down from my role, effective immediately. Our nation needs a peaceful transfer of power.” Matthews had previously served as a communications aide for the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. She was also a staffer on the Trump campaign.

Anna Cristina Niceta, White House social secretary

Anna Cristina Niceta, the White House social secretary, resigned from her post Wednesday. The social secretary occupies a low rung of the West Wing hierarchy, organizing events like the annual Easter Egg Roll, Halloween, and official state visits. The White House, which informed CNN of Niceta’s decision, did not provide a reason for her resignation, though it quickly followed that of Grisham.

This article is periodically updated to include new resignations.

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

Cailey Griffin is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @keenstoryteller

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