Larger staff exodus feared in West Wing

WASHINGTON — President Trump once presided over a reality show in which a key cast member exited each week. The same thing seems to be happening in his White House.

Trump’s West Wing has descended into a period of unparalleled tumult amid a wave of staff departures, yet the president insists it’s a place of ‘‘no chaos, only great energy.’’ The latest to announce his exit is Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who had clashed with the boss over trade policy.

Cohn’s departure is viewed as a victory for protectionists and immigration hawks, but it has sparked internal fears of an even larger White House exodus that will only make it more difficult for Trump to advance his already languishing policy agenda.


Multiple White House officials said the president has been pushing anxious aides to stay on the job. ‘‘Everyone wants to work in the White House,’’ Trump said during a news conference Tuesday.

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The reality is far different. Vacancies abound in the West Wing and the broader Trump administration, with some jobs never filled and others subject to repeat openings. The position of White House communications director will be empty again after the departure of its fourth occupant, Hope Hicks.

‘‘They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies,’’ said Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas of the Brookings Institution who tracks senior-level staff turnover. Her analysis shows the Trump departure rate has reached 40 percent in just over a year.

‘‘That kind of turnover creates a lot of disruption,’’ she said, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress. ‘‘You can’t really leave those behind to your successor.’’

One White House official said there is concern about a potential ‘‘death spiral’’ in the West Wing staff, with each departure heightening the sense of frenzy and expediting the next.


Multiple aides who are considering departing, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said they didn’t have a clue about whom the administration could find to fill their roles. They said their desire to be team players has kept them on the job longer than planned. Some said they are nearing a breaking point.

‘‘You have situations where people are stretched to take on more than one job,’’ said Martha Joynt Kumar, head of the White House Transition Project.

She cited the example of Johnny DeStefano, who oversees the White House offices of personnel, public liaison, political affairs, and intergovernmental affairs. ‘‘Those are four positions that in most administrations are each headed by an assistant to the president or a deputy assistant,’’ Kumar said.

The overlap between those qualified to work in the White House and those willing to take a job there has been shrinking too, according to White House officials and outside Trump allies concerned about the slow pace of hires.

Trump’s mercurial decision-making practices, fears of being drawn into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and a stalled legislative agenda are keeping top-flight talent on the outside.


A number of aides have expressed worry about the legal implications and steep bills they could face if ensnared in Mueller’s inquiry. It has had a chilling effect on hiring, officials say, and there is wide concern that working for Trump could hurt career prospects.