WASHINGTON — The doors at the White House have been swinging a lot lately. A deputy chief of staff moved on. A speechwriter resigned. The associate attorney general stepped down. The chief of staff offered to quit. And that was just Friday.
All of that came after the departure of Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who cleared out his office last week amid accusations of spousal abuse. The White House had overlooked reported problems with his security clearance last year in part, officials said, because of a reluctance to lose yet another senior aide, particularly one seen as so professional and reliable.
More than a year into his administration, President Trump is presiding over a staff in turmoil, one with a 34 percent turnover rate, higher than any White House in decades. He has struggled to fill openings, unwilling to hire Republicans he considers disloyal and unable to entice Republicans who consider him unstable. Those who do come to work for him often do not last long, burning out from a volatile, sometimes cutthroat environment exacerbated by tweets and subpoenas.
To visit the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the granite, slate and cast iron edifice across West Executive Avenue from the White House where most of the president’s staff works, at times feels like walking through a ghost town. The hallways do not bustle as much as in past administrations. The budget director is doing double duty as the acting head of the consumer protection agency. The personnel director is doing triple duty, also overseeing the offices of political affairs and public liaison.
“We have vacancies on top of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied White House turnover over the last six administrations. “You have initial vacancies, you have people who left in the first year and now you have people who are leaving in the second year.”
According to a report by Ms. Tenpas, Mr. Trump’s 34 percent turnover rate in his first year is more than three times as high as President Barack Obama’s in the same period and twice as high as President Ronald Reagan’s, which until now was the modern record-holder. Of 12 positions deemed most central to the president, only five are still filled by the same person as when Mr. Trump took office.
Mr. Trump is on his second press secretary, his second national security adviser and his third deputy national security adviser. Five different people have been named communications director or served in the job in an acting capacity. The president has parted ways with his chief strategist, health secretary, several deputy chiefs of staff and his original private legal team. He is on his second chief of staff — and some wonder whether a third may be in the offing soon.
Some administration officials privately spend much of their time trying to figure out how to leave without looking disloyal or provoking an easily angered president. Others, like Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, stubbornly resist what seem like clear signals that they are no longer welcome.
“I’m still here,” Mr. Tillerson told Fox News last week, months after the White House was reported in The New York Times and elsewhere to have a plan to replace him. “Nothing has changed.” Asked if he thought some in the administration were still advocating that he be replaced, Mr. Tillerson said, “I have no idea.”
Grueling in the best of times, an administration job now seems even less appealing to many potential recruits. Republican operatives said they worry not only about the pressure-cooker, soap-opera atmosphere and the danger of being drawn into the special counsel investigation of Russia’s election interference but also about hurting their careers after the White House.
“There isn’t a huge appetite from many Republicans on the outside to explore job opportunities in this administration,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. “While there are a lot of vacancies and usually a position in the White House is one of the most prestigious jobs in Washington, that’s just not the feeling with this administration, given the turmoil and the chaos.”
John F. Kelly was charged with reining in the turmoil and the chaos when he took over as chief of staff last summer, and many credit him with imposing more order on the building and shuffling out some of the more quarrelsome figures. But many White House officials were already souring on Mr. Kelly even before his handling of the abuse allegations against Mr. Porter gave his internal critics new ammunition against him.
Mr. Trump has expressed frustration with Mr. Kelly as well, but has sent mixed signals about whether he might replace him.
“Clearly between the two of them, Kelly and Trump, they don’t know what it is to manage,” said Terry Sullivan, the executive director of the White House Transition Project, which studies presidential personnel and management. “And by historical standards, they are particularly bad at it.”
Those who leave tell friends and associates horror stories that do not help with recruitment. Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former contestant on Mr. Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice” who worked in the White House until Mr. Kelly pushed her out in December, cried as she described her experiences during a new episode of “The Celebrity Big Brother” that aired on CBS last week.
“So I’m there fighting, fighting, fighting, getting my head bashed in, and nobody coming out publicly to say, ‘We support her,’” she told a fellow competitor. Asked if the nation would be O.K., she said, “No, it’s going to not be O.K. It’s not.” She added that she would not vote for Mr. Trump again “in a million years, never.”
Beyond those leaving, many positions have never been filled nearly 13 months after the inauguration. Some of those vacancies stem from the glacial pace of background investigations and the Senate confirmation process, which has grown worse with each successive president. But in many cases, the Trump administration has still not identified candidates.
According to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that tracks appointments along with The Washington Post, the Trump administration has made the fewest nominations, not counting those that have failed, and has had the fewest confirmed by this point of any of the last five administrations. At the State Department, nominees have yet to be made for three under secretary positions and 10 assistant secretary positions, senior-level jobs that have traditionally been crucial to managing foreign policy.
Now in its second year, the president’s team is trying to get ahead of the situation. The White House on Friday released a raft of appointments. But a vast majority of the 32 announced were actually just promotions from within, or additional titles for existing staff members.
The top two appointments on the list were James Carroll as acting national drug policy director and John DeStefano as counselor to the president, both choices that underlined the challenges for the White House.
For Mr. Carroll, it will be his fourth job in the White House since the administration’s inception; he started in the White House counsel’s office, then became general counsel for the budget office and served most recently as deputy chief of staff. For Mr. DeStefano, the new title was a recognition that he has already effectively been overseeing the offices of personnel, political affairs and public liaison.
The constant churning exacts a toll. “It takes time for any group to jell and learn the ropes of governing, and that is definitely complicated by turnover,” said Lisa Brown, a top White House official under Mr. Obama and President Bill Clinton. “Every new person has to learn the ropes and changes the team dynamic. No different than an Olympic ice hockey team — it takes practice and discipline to work well together as a team.”
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