Wave of exits from White House fuels talk of brain drain

Trump economic aide Cohn departs after disagreement over trade policy

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US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, during a retreat with Republican lawmakers and members of his Cabinet at Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland, in this Jan. 6, 2018 file photo. — AFP

WASHINGTON — President Donald 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 — and despite the president’s insistence that it’s a place of “no Chaos, only great Energy!” The latest key figure to announce an exit: Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who had clashed with Trump over trade policy.

Cohn’s departure has sparked internal fears of an even larger exodus, raising concerns in Washington of a coming “brain drain” around the president that will only make it more difficult to advance his already languishing policy agenda. While Trump has publicly tried to dispel perceptions of disarray, multiple White House officials said the president has been pushing anxious aides to stay on the job to try to staunch the bleeding.

“Everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump insisted during a news conference Tuesday. “They all want a piece of the Oval Office.”

The reality is a far different story.

Vacancies abound in the West Wing and the broader Trump administration - with some jobs never filled by the president and others subject to repeat openings. The job of White House communications director is soon to be empty again after the departure of its fourth occupant, Hope Hicks.

“They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow at 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 added, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress. “You can’t really leave those behind to your successor.”

Turnover after a year in office is nothing new, but the Trump administration has churned through staff at a dizzying pace and allies are worried the situation could descend into a free-fall.

One White House official said there is concern about a potential “death spiral” in the West Wing — each departure heightening the sense of frenzy and expediting the next.

Multiple aides who are considering departing, all speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they didn’t have a clue whom the administration could find to fill their roles — adding that their desire to be team players has kept them on the job longer than planned. But a number warned they were nearing a breaking point.

“You have situations where people are stretched to take on more than one job,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director 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 says.

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 allies concerned about the slow pace of hires.

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


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