This personnel overhaul of the Trump Cabinet at the start of a second term would mirror the turnover his administration has already experienced during his first four years. Of the 23 Cabinet-level posts in the Trump White House, only seven officials lasted all four years. Many, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, had public and contentious departures. And it would represent a fully unencumbered Trump, no longer constrained by political considerations or pushback from Congress.
“I can only imagine the score-settling Trump would undertake if he won,” said one Republican close to the White House about the potential Cabinet shakeup.
The reshuffling means a number of key agencies could see swift changes. On the health side, the administration could see the departures of figures like HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Robert Redfield, National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services head Seema Verma. Some, like Verma, may leave on their own terms to return to their home states, while others, like Collins, may retire.
Inside the White House, there is a debate over whether it is prudent to make changes to the health care team in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic. Yet aides also have repeatedly criticized or clashed with officials at the CDC, HHS and Food and Drug Administration during the more than seven months of life under Covid-19. In particular, aides and allies around the president are unsure about Azar’s fate, as they have been many times over the last several months.
On the national security front, government leaders like FBI Director Chris Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark Esper are potentially in the crosshairs. Trump is angry with Wray and Haspel for not investigating his claims, made without any concrete evidence, that the Obama White House conspired against him and his 2016 campaign. With Esper, Trump has felt disappointed the Pentagon chief did not do more to take on the military’s bureaucracy, which Trump aides caricature as the “Deep State.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Trump has swiftly dispatched with agency heads after an election. The 2018 midterms brought about a huge reshuffling of the Cabinet, starting the day after the election when Trump tweet-canned then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Then, in the ensuing months, Trump’s Defense secretary, Interior secretary and Homeland Security secretary all left or were replaced.
White House advisers say Trump is likely to expel Esper, Haspel and Wray almost as quickly as he did with Sessions, given his frustration with their performances.
“If Trump wins, he will feel vindicated and liberated, he will stack his Cabinet even more with loyalists,” said Chris Lu, a frequent Trump critic who served as the White House Cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. “It sends government in a pretty dangerous direction.”
The White House press office declined to comment.
“We have no personnel announcements at this time, nor would it be appropriate to speculate about changes after the election or in a second term,” said White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere.
Less high-profile Cabinet secretaries like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are expected to exit, since Trump never really clicked with her. So is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Attorney General Bill Barr is expected to stay on for part of 2021, despite Trump’s occasional public frustrations with him. So is Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, two of the aides closest to the president personally.
Barr, Mnuchin and Pompeo’s presence, combined with the ongoing tenure of top White House aides like Mark Meadows, Jared Kushner and Pat Cippollone, would provide the White House with some continuity during a year of extreme turnover in both the Cabinet and West Wing staff.
“There has been a lot of turnover in the Cabinet, but the power has always been concentrated in the White House the whole time,” said one Republican close to the White House. “The nucleus of the White House will remain status quo, while there will be changes on the periphery.”
One former senior administration official, privy to some of the personnel conversations, cautioned the mercurial president could change his mind, depending on his mood after the election and what, if any, wins Cabinet officials present to him in the coming weeks.
Aides and allies say the president has not been too focused on upcoming personnel changes or any second-term agenda, according to interviews with a dozen current and former senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. Trump was superstitious in 2016 of making any plans past the election. And he is behaving in the same manner in 2020, singularly focused on his rallies and his efforts to beat Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who he views as a weak candidate.
“He was a big believer in the idea that Mitt Romney worried about the transition more than winning,” said a third Republican close to the White House, mentioning the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. “Chris Christie was the transition director in 2016 and then Trump got rid of him. Trump is focused on the next week of winning, and it would be foolish for anyone to say to him right now, ‘In the second term, I want to do this, I want to do that.’”
If you did so, the official said, “you would get your head bashed in.”
White House and agency officials are thinking through a potential second-term agenda, which would include actions meant to address surprise medical bills and prescription drug costs. Top economic officials have long wanted to do another round of tax cuts, while trade and economic officials are eyeing more actions against China. What is unclear is whether U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will stick around as one of the administration’s chief and well-known China hawks.
“The biggest problem presidents face for the second term is that most of them run on the past and not on the future,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar and director of the White House Transition Project. “For the first term, they run on what they are going to do, so it is easy coming in. But in the second term … you are stuck with leftovers.”
Adam Cancryn and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.