With Acosta’s forthcoming exit, Trump has tied Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush with eight exits by original department heads

With Alex Acosta’s recent announcement that he would resign from his post on July 19th as U.S. Secretary of Labor, yet another Donald Trump cabinet secretary is out during the president’s first term.

Acosta’s departure now means in less than two and one-half years since Trump took office, more than half Trump’s initial 15 department heads have left due to policy disagreements with the president, scandal/controversy, or other administrative reasons: John Kelly (Homeland Security), Tom Price (Health and Human Services), David Shulkin (Veterans Affairs), Rex Tillerson (State), Jeff Sessions (Justice), Jim Mathis (Defense), Ryan Zinke (Interior), and Acosta (Labor).

[Note: A second non-acting department head has also exited from one of these aforementioned departments – Kirstjen Nielsen of Homeland Security].

Despite all of these resignations, however, Trump has not yet eclipsed two modern presidents on this metric.

George H.W. Bush also saw eight of his initial department heads leave before the end of his four years in office: Clayton Yuetter (Agriculture), Dick Thornburgh (Attorney General, holdover from Ronald Reagan’s administration), Robert Mosbacher (Commerce), Laura Cavazos (Education, holdover from Reagan), Elizabeth Dole (Labor), James Baker (State), Samuel Skinner (Transportation), and Edward Derwinski (Veterans Affairs).

[Note: Technically, Jack Kemp (HUD) and Nicholas Brady (Treasury) also left office a few days before the end of Bush’s term].

Jimmy Carter also saw eight original department heads leave their position before his four years at the White House came to an end: Griffin Bell (Attorney General), Juanita Creps (Commerce), Joseph Califano (Health, Education, and Welfare), James Schlesinger (Energy), Patricia Harris (HUD, who shifted over to head HEW), Cyrus Vance (State), Brock Adams (Transportation), and W. Michael Blumenthal (Treasury).

It should be noted there were fewer departments during both the presidencies of Carter (no Veterans Affairs or Homeland Security) and Bush 41 (no Homeland Security) than Trump’s.

The revolving door in Trump’s cabinet is in stark contrast to the stability seen during the first term of the last two presidents.

Barack Obama saw all but two initial department heads last through at least the end of his first term.

The two exceptions were Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (2 years, 4 months, 7 days) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates (a George W. Bush administration holdover who left 2 years, 5 months, 11 days after Obama took office).

In other words, Trump had seven department heads leave office before the first such departure during President Obama’s first term.

Likewise, George W. Bush only replaced two of his initial cabinet heads during his first term: the Treasury’s Paul O’Neill (after 1 year, 11 months, 2 days) and Mel Martinez of Housing and Urban Development (2 years, 10 months, 19 days).

Bill Clinton lost four department heads during his first four years in office: Mike Espy (Agriculture), Ron Brown (Commerce, died), Les Aspin (Defense), and Lloyd Bentsen (Treasury).

[Note: An additional three Clinton cabinet members left a few days before the end of the president’s first term in January 1997 – Henry Cisneros (HUD), Robert Reich (Labor), and Warren Christopher (State)].

Reagan replaced five such administration officials during his first term: James Edwards (Energy), Richard Schweiker (HHS), James Watt (Interior), Alexander Haig (State), and Drew Lewis (Transportation).

Of the eight original department heads who have left during Trump’s administration, a few set records along the way.

Price served for 7 months, 20 days which marked the shortest tenure in HHS history (or its predecessor Health, Education, and Welfare).

Kelly lasted 6 months, 12 days – also the shortest tenure in the (brief) history of the Department of Homeland Security.

Shulkin remained on the job in Veterans Affairs for 1 year, 1 month, 15 days – well short of Derwinski’s previous low water mark for a first presidential pick in the department’s history (3 years, 6 months, 12 days).

The remaining seven original Trump department heads are Sonny Perdue (Agriculture), Wilbur Ross (Commerce), Betsy DeVos (Education), Rick Perry (Energy), Ben Carson (HUD), Elaine Chao (Transportation), and Steven Mnuchin (Treasury).

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  1. Nikoli Orr on July 14, 2019 at 10:37 pm

    Are Nikki Haley (UN ambassador to the UN) and Linda McMahon (administrator of SBA) not being counted as “department heads”? Or have their departures been excluded from the list merely because they left not of any adverse reason? [Both are, or have been, Cabinet-level posts, though not nearly as prominent as, say, head of State or Labor.]

    • Dr Eric Ostermeier on July 15, 2019 at 7:16 am

      While those positions are Cabinet-level, they are purposefully excluded (as is Chief of Staff, Director of National Intelligence, OMB etc). Executive departments under analysis are those outlined in the presidential succession statute only.

      • Daniel Fox on July 16, 2019 at 8:07 pm

        And if we were counting them, we’d also have to count Andrew Young (Carter’s ambassador to the UN), Bert Lance (his OMB director), and Robert Strauss (his US Trade Representative), all of whom were gone before 1980.

        Oh, yes, and from the Bush 41 years: Thomas Pickering, UN ambassador, and William H. Webster, Director of Central Intelligence.

  2. John Chessant on July 16, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    RE above: Don’t forget Scott Pruitt (administrator of the EPA), the other cabinet-level departure of this administration!


    Eisenhower’s “nine millionaires and a plumber” cabinet held relatively steady; only the plumber Martin Durkin (Labor), Oveta Culp Hobby (HEW), and Douglas McKay (Interior) resigned during Eisenhower’s first term. Durkin, who to this day holds the shortest-ever tenure as labor secretary, resigned over differences with the administration, especially on reforms to the 1947 labor-management relations act; Hobby, the wife of former Texas governor William P. Hobby and the second-ever female cabinet member, resigned due to the Cutter incident, in which administered doses of polio vaccine were found to contain the live virus, which resulted in tens of thousands contracting some form of the disease, with ten deaths and hundreds paralyzed; and McKay, a former Oregon governor, resigned as interior secretary in 1956 to run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in Oregon against incumbent Wayne Morse.

    All but four of Kennedy’s original cabinet stayed for a full four-year term (while Kennedy himself was assassinated in 1963): Edward Day (postmaster general), Abraham Ribicoff (HEW), Arthur Goldberg (Labor), and Robert F. Kennedy (AG). Day, a business executive whose tenure at the post office saw the introduction of ZIP codes, resigned citing the office’s “low” salary; Ribicoff, a former Connecticut governor, resigned as HEW secretary in 1962 to run successfully for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, succeeding the retiring Prescott Bush; Goldberg resigned to become an associate justice of the SCOTUS; and (“Bobby”) Kennedy, younger brother of the late president, resigned in 1964 to run successfully for U.S. Senate in New York, defeating incumbent Kenneth Keating. [As the vice-president has also been considered a member of the cabinet, at least since FDR, we may also technically include Lyndon B. Johnson as a member of the Kennedy cabinet who left his original position within four years.]

    Nixon’s cabinet, on the other hand, saw similar shake-up to Trump, Carter, and Bush Sr. by this metric. Eight cabinet secretaries were replaced during Nixon’s first term: Robert Finch (HEW), George P. Shultz (Labor), Wally Hickel (Interior), David Kennedy (Treasury), Clifford Hardin (Agriculture), Winton Blount (postmaster general), Maurice Stans (Commerce), and John Mitchell (AG). Finch resigned to become counselor to the president while Shultz resigned to become OMB director; Hickel was dismissed over political differences with the president, especially on the Vietnam War and the Kent State shootings; Blount, although he resigned as postmaster general in 1972 to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Alabama against (Nixon’s 1952 opponent) John Sparkman, [a campaign, incidentally, on which a young George W. Bush’s role as political director formed part of his military service controversy, which became an issue in the 2004 election], had in fact ceased to be a cabinet member in 1971 when the post office was re-organized into an independent agency of the executive branch and the sinecure-ish postmaster general position was demoted from the cabinet; and Stans and Mitchell resigned to take top positions in Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, respectively becoming the CREEP finance chairman and the Nixon campaign chairman, roles that would turn out to be central to the Watergate scandal.

    Understandably, all of the (Nixon-holdover) cabinet secretaries besides Henry Kissinger (State) and William Simon (Treasury) were replaced sometime during Ford’s term from 1974 to 1977.

    Also noteworthy is that almost all of Carter’s cabinet departures occurred between July and October 1979. Four cabinet secretaries, namely Joseph Califano (HEW), Michael Blumenthal (Treasury), Griffin Bell (AG), and James Schlesinger (Energy), along with the (cabinet-level) trade representative Robert Strauss, resigned in August 1979 alone. These departures closely followed the appointment of Hamilton Jordan as White House chief of staff in July 1979; Carter notably did not have a chief of staff until then.

  3. Nikoli Orr on July 16, 2019 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks for clarifying between department heads and cabinet-level/rank officials (the former group is narrower/more restrictive). Question: If a department head is not a Senate-confirmed officer (i.e. acting secretary), would such individual be passed over as a presidential successor, as is the case with those who are naturalized citizens, e.g. Elaine Chao and Madeleine J K Albright?

    Re: Pruitt is excluded from the casualty tally (if it may be called that) since he did not head a “department” (e.g. HHS, DHS). Indeed, Veterans Affairs began as an agency and only later was promoted to a department; there has been a movement since the late 1980s to do the same for the Environmental Protection Agency.

    • Andrew on August 20, 2019 at 2:05 pm

      Regarding acting heads, the question of whether they are part of the presidential line of succession has yet to be addressed.

      Chao and Albright, meanwhile, are indeed not eligible to be in the line of succession. However, that doesn’t exclude them from being counted similarly to their fellow cabinet secretaries for other purposes, such as this article’s.

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