As any good boss knows, turnover is costly. And for the White House, this can also be true. Today National Security Advisor John Bolton was given the boot after President Trump tweeted in part that he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
Bolton was in his position for 17 months and his name joins a long list of Trump officials who have been fired or resigned.
In November, it was rumored that White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen were going to be fired. The rumors would eventually come true; Mick Mulvaney is the current White House Chief of Staff, and Nielsen resigned in April. The current acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is Kevin McAleenan.
According to the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning think tank, since Trump took office, nine cabinet members and 50 of 65 of the president’s top advisors have left — a turnover rate of 77%.
Kathryn Tenpas, one of the Brookings fellows tracking White House replacements, says Trump’s turnover rate far surpasses his predecessors, most after serving an entire four years in office.
“President Trump is in search of his fourth National Security Advisor in a little less than 32 months in office,” Tenpas told Yahoo Finance. “Since the position was established in 1953, no president has burned through three national security advisors in less than three years in office.”
“My data goes back to Reagan,” she said, “but in my studies of the modern presidency and the Executive Office of the President (starts with FDR), I can say with confidence that there has never been this much staff turnover within the senior ranks. It is truly unprecedented.”
So what does all this cost? Ultimately, the total cost of White House turnover is impossible to calculate. But turnover in general does have very real costs, and that doesn’t change with the White House. There have been many studies trying to pinpoint the cost of turnover. According to a comprehensive study by the Center for American Progress in 2012, turnover for business executives can cost upwards of 213% of the base salary of the replaced employee. According to the most recently released document of White House salaries, many of the president’s top aides are getting paid about $180,000. For Cabinet positions, those figures are higher. So on salaries alone, this means that on the low end, at only 100% of base pay, White House turnover costs more than $8 million. On the high end? The number soars to some $20 million.
Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and member of President Clinton’s administration, says this is a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget.
True cost of turnover
In reality, Kamarck says, the true cost of turnover is to the presidency and his agenda. Without staff to implement his vision, the president will find it difficult to move forward.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Chase Untermeyer, who points out vacancies could save taxpayers money in the form of salary payments. Untermeyer is a former White House Director of Presidential Personnel for President George H.W. Bush.
“It may be an attitude in the Trump administration that vacancies are good, and that’s how you clear out the swamp and validate what the people wanted in 2016,” Untermeyer told Yahoo Finance.
“And I would say that’s totally wrong. The only way an administration gets anything done is having people pushing the president’s agenda,” he said.
The high turnover could also impact morale, Untermeyer says.
If the administration thinks fewer staffers is better, “burnout” is very possible, Untermeyer said.
“They won’t have many colleagues and helpers. They won’t have anybody to sit down with and figure out how to move the agenda. And if at a certain point if what I’m talking about it the case, those people might figure they’ll have a better life working for the ‘Plastic Spoon Association’ than staying there,” he says.
The turnover also impacts the president’s ability to work with global partners and allies.
“On a global stage, it impacts poorly because they don’t know where the United States is on an issue,” Kamarck says. “People need to know where we’re going, what we believe, and what our policy is. So when we are constantly changing the players, it is detrimental and it’s detrimental to American leadership.”
Tenpas says Brookings’ numbers are “understated.”
“When someone senior leaves, there’s a whole bunch of people under them that leave and they are never written about,” Tenpas says.
Of course, previous presidents have shuffled and replaced members of their administrations. And Tenpas says turnover is not only public, but amounts to public firings.
“What’s very unusual is that in this particular administration that the president more often than not fires people,” Tenpas said. “He asks them to leave. In my report for Brookings, I use the term ‘fired under pressure.’ The president himself chooses to fire people and frequently.”
The Trump administration’s turnover rates this early into the term are higher than any other elected first-term president in the past 100 years, according to an NPR report.
The reason for replacements
So what’s causing such high turnover rates?
“It runs the gamut,” explains Kamarck. “From him being a difficult boss to say to the least, to some of this is normal — midterms, turnover is normal — and some of it is mistakes in hiring in the first place.”
Many presidents fill their White House with members of their campaign. Tenpas says Trump’s lean campaign reduced the number of potential candidates. His insistence on loyalty is another reason for high turnover, and could make finding replacements difficult.
Many staffers came in primarily with business experience, said Tenpas. But there tends to be more stability with people who’ve worked for previous presidents. “You see people he chose out of loyalty instead of experience, and that sets people up for failure,” she says.
“It makes sense, when you put people in jobs where they don’t have any experience you have a lot of turnover,” she said.
The next two years
With so many vacancies and replacements, the instability of the White House could make it difficult for the president to work with a House controlled by Democrats.
“He won’t be able to pass anything major,” Kamarck says. “In his first two years he was able to take some administrative action because Congress was willing to let him do that. So think of all of
his executive actions. Congress can always get in the middle of that. They didn’t in the first two years, but I suspect in the next two years they will.”
Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter. This article was updated on Sept. 10, 2019 from a previous version.