That’s a remarkable level of turnover for just one term. Trump’s immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, saw just a handful of departures each in their first terms.
What may be more remarkable than all the people who left are the ones who stayed for the duration of Trump’s time in office. Only six look poised to have lasted from the beginning to the end — Steven Mnuchin at Treasury, Sonny Perdue at Agriculture, Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, Elaine Chao at Transportation and Betsy DeVos at Education.
These six Trump survivors have little in common. Some are veterans of government, while others were political novices when they joined the administration. A few accomplished a lot during their tenure and played key roles on important issues. Others faded into the background.
They all however managed to do the one thing that has seemed to be the most difficult in an exceedingly chaotic administration — avoid Trump’s ire. They have, by and large, escaped major scandal, survived internal fights, and perhaps most importantly, remained unfailingly loyal to the boss. That’s not always kept them from getting on Trump’s bad side. But on net, the survivors have stayed in his good graces, and in many cases, safely out of his sight.
Here’s a look at the legacy of the Trump administration survivors from the last four years.
One of the original Cabinet positions, the Treasury Secretary is often a close political ally to the President. Treasury’s headquarters is literally next door to the White House. Steven Mnuchin, a veteran of Goldman Sachs and hedge-fund management, has certainly filled that role. An early supporter of Trump’s, Mnuchin joined the campaign in 2016 as finance chairman and was rewarded with the plumb appointment.
Intensely loyal to Trump, Mnuchin has not veered out of his lane at Treasury and shuns the spotlight. Early in the administration, it was his new wife, the Scottish actress Louise Linton, who attracted more attention in the nation’s capital. And with every controversy, from the President’s response to the 2017 Charlottesville protests on, Mnuchin has not offered one bit of daylight between him and Trump.
He has also been a savvy operator within the Cabinet, forging strategic relationships with others, including Trump’s one-time favorite, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
While Mnuchin often remained out of Trump’s public crosshairs, the President often derided him privately for recommending appointing Jerome Powell as the chair of the Federal Reserve. He often joked — semi-seriously, sources said — that no matter how good of a deal Mnuchin brought him, he was still responsible for Powell.
Among Mnuchin’s achievements are the 2017 tax bill, which he helped draft and advocated for on Capitol Hill. He’s also been a dutiful executor of tariffs and sanctions on China, fulfilling a chief priority of Trump’s to put the squeeze on Beijing.
Mnuchin has been less successful in the latest negotiations on Capitol Hill for economic relief. The impasse is more reflective on the partisan divide between the Democratic House and Republican Senate, as well as to Trump’s seeming indifference to finding a compromise. Mnuchin has approached this last big effort as he has for most of the Trump era, hewing closely to what the President wants.
Sonny Perdue came to the Trump Cabinet, as Secretary of Agriculture, as something of an elder statesman for an upstart, outsider President. The first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, he had been a state senator and, in his pre-political career, a veterinarian and agriculture transportation business owner.
That moment was reassuring to agriculture interests concerned Trump might threaten the benefits they had under the freer trade regime, said Dale Moore, the executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. It also set the tone for smoother relations between the administration and the farm industry once Trump’s trade war with China began to have real negative impacts domestically.
“Even our folks who were frustrated with the situation were very confident in Secretary Perdue,” said Moore.
And despite the grumblings from individual farmers, Trump’s support in most of the country’s rural areas increased in the 2020 election.
Perdue was one of the first people in the administration to refer to the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic in February.
More than any secretary in the Cabinet, Wilbur Ross at Commerce was the most reliable advocate for Trump’s protectionist trade policies. Allied with top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Ross ultimately won the internal fight inside the White House with Trump’s free trader advisers, including Gary Cohn, who resigned as national economic adviser in March 2018.
The Census will have lasting effects on apportionment of congressional seats and the distribution of federal funds.
Trump often told people he wanted to get rid of Ross in the fall of 2019, but kept him around because the two run in the same circles and he couldn’t bring himself to fire his old friend, he told associates.
Trump appointed two of his GOP primary rivals in 2016 to his Cabinet: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to Energy and famed neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson to Housing and Urban Development. While Perry (who left last year) had decades of political experience, including 14 years as a governor, Carson came to Washington like Trump, as a total newbie.
Unlike the outsider President, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is a consummate Washington insider. Until Barr’s confirmation, she was the only veteran of a previous President’s Cabinet, serving as George W. Bush’s Labor Secretary, and she has held political appointments in previous Republican administrations.
Chao is also the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like others among the survivors, Chao has passed the loyalty test, though that’s been made a bit more complicated by her marriage.
In 2017, after McConnell joined other Republican leaders in condemning Trump’s Charlottesville response, the President publicly criticized the GOP leader. Chao was asked by reporters for her thoughts on her boss going after her husband.
A major Republican donor from a wealthy Michigan family, Betsy DeVos came into the job at the Education Department as an activist for charter schools and school choice. Her tenure has largely satisfied conservatives in the education policy world while frustrating liberals and advocates for more federal regulation and oversight.
Stephanie Riegg Cellini, a scholar with the Brookings Institution and a critic of unregulated for-profit colleges, characterized DeVos as a savior for an industry that was struggling to meet transparency requirements and seeing falling enrollment numbers thanks to Obama-era regulations.
“She really changed the trajectory for this sector,” said Cellini.
DeVos had fallen out of favor with the President on multiple occasions, though he ultimately kept her on the job. DeVos faced intense criticism internally for rarely attending coronavirus meetings, despite the heavy focus on whether schools should remain open in the spring or open as scheduled in the fall. Trump’s lashed out at her multiple times in April, multiple sources told CNN, often arguing she had the worst confirmation hearings of any of his Cabinet secretaries.
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak contributed to this article.