Washington Update: City of the Perishable
About a decade ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Washington, D.C. “the city of the perishable.”
The speaker was talking about legislation, but she easily could have been talking about top officials in the Trump administration. This week, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats became the latest senior administration official to hand in his resignation letter. Coats had served as DNI since March 2017 – his 28 months being one of the longest tenures in the Trump cabinet.
The Trump administration has been marked by turnover from its outset and as the president reaches his reelection, the pace has kept up. Even before Coats’ resignation, TIME reported there had been “more turnover in [Trump’s] Cabinet in the first two and a half years of his presidency than any of his five immediate predecessors had in their entire first terms.” (And, don’t forget, there are more than 16 months left in the president’s first term.)
While the DNI position was relatively stable, according to the Brookings Institution, one-third of top White House positions have undergone “serial turnover” under President Trump. There have been, for example, four deputy chiefs of staff, five communications directors and three national security advisers.
The turmoil includes the chief of staff. President George W. Bush’s first White House chief of staff served for 1,911 days. President Barack Obama’s served 620 days. President Donald Trump, on the other hand, told Reince Priebus “you’re fired” after just 189 days.
So, who is left – and, more importantly, what does that mean for policy until at least January 2021?
While the president has dealt with his fair share of scandal-related resignations, many individuals who have left the administration were institutional Republicans rather than “Trump” Republicans. Those individuals departed, generally, due to policy squabbles. And those left standing are mostly true believers in the president’s “America First” platform.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis disagreed with President Trump’s decision to remove troops from Syria and the president’s posture regarding the value of several foreign allies. Top economic adviser Gary Cohn opposed the president’s tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. That issue also contributed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s resignation.
Cohn and Tillerson were regarded as fairly middle-of-the-road, establishment voices. (Cohn was actually a Democrat before joining the Trump administration.) Their view on the tariffs was countered by Peter Navarro, who has served in the Trump administration since the inauguration. According to Bob Woodward’s most recent book Fear, Navarro routinely groused to the president about Cohn (and Cohn to the president about Navarro). In one hand-written note to President Trump, Navarro complained that the “Cohn faction” had him demoted and left him without staff and an office.
Navarro, whom the president reportedly calls “my Peter,” still occupies a place on the White House staff and, in a statement to The Washington Post, he was praised by Donald Trump Jr. The president’s son said, “Peter is a fierce warrior for my father’s America First trade agenda and while it may upset some members of the failed bipartisan establishment of the Washington Swamp … His only agenda is my father’s agenda and the White House is lucky to have him.” Perhaps no surprise then, that with Navarro as the last man standing in the West Wing, the White House’s positioning on tariffs has become markedly more aggressive of late.
Navarro is strongly allied with another White House survivor, Stephen Miller. Miller oversees immigration policy and writes many of President Trump’s speeches.
Like Navarro, he has clashed with more moderate staff members. Fortune explained tension with Miller led to Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary. Tensions also might have contributed to the resignations of Nielsen’s deputy and the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Additionally, in May, DHS Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan threatened to resign because Miller was exerting too much power at DHS.
CNN said, “The clash highlights yet another instance of Miller causing tension with his far-reaching influence as a counselor on immigration matters to President Donald Trump.” Despite the tensions he creates, Miller is likely to stay in the White House through the reelection, and to pressure the president to stay true to his “America First” strategy platform.
The executive branch is not the only one dealing with mounting resignations from more middle-of-the-road individuals.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue in the last week, four current House members have announced that they will not run for reelection in 2020. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) resignation Tuesday brings the total number of GOP resignations in the 2020 election cycle – still in its relative infancy – to eight. Only two House Democrats are retiring. (Additionally, two Republicans are leaving the House to run for higher office. One Democrat is. There also are three GOP senators – Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Pat Roberts of Kansas – who have declined to run for reelection. Only one Senate Democrat, Tom Udall of New Mexico, has declined to do so.)
During the midterm election cycle in 2018, 26 House Republicans decided not to run for reelection or higher office – the fifth-largest number since the Watergate-related resignations of 1974. Since incumbents have a significantly greater chance of success at the ballot box, this retirement number will be one to watch since it will indicate whether President Trump’s party will be able to take back the House from Speaker Pelosi.
Republican resignations could make life more difficult for the White House in another way as well. The mostly moderate lawmakers leaving Washington will not have to face GOP primary voters next spring so criticizing the occupant of the Oval Office will be easier – and more frequent. In 2018, retiring Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were recurrent critics of the president on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration.
We already have seen a couple examples of this phenomenon.
Not two weeks before announcing his retirement, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) condemned President Trump’s statement that four Democratic women serving in the U.S. House should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who announced her resignation earlier this summer, was one of the handful of Republicans who voted on the House floor to condemn those comments. (Rep. Justin Amash, who recently left the GOP altogether but is running for reelection, was another.)
Republican political strategist Alex Conant has observed, “[President] Trump never forgets a Republican who is disloyal to him … Republicans are very wary of criticizing Trump because they don’t want to face his retribution in the primaries.”
The choice for lawmakers seems to be the same choice as staff and cabinet serving in the Trump administration: toe the line or perish.
Steve Boms is the founder and President of Allon Advocacy, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy consulting firm. Steve has spent his career focused on complex financial services public policy issues, having worked in the United States Congress on the committee with jurisdiction over banking. He has led advocacy efforts and public policy teams globally for equity options exchanges, large U.S.-based financial institutions, and leading fintech firms. In addition to working directly with Allon's clients, he is a frequent conference panelist and his perspective is solicited by reporters on the technology, financial services, and regulatory beats.
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