Trump Averts Mass-Resignation Crisis as Riot Tests Staff Loyalty
Donald Trump risked losing much of his White House staff to mass resignations after inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, but top officials have decided to stay on to smooth the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
“Those who work in this building are working to ensure an orderly transition of power,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a brief statement to reporters on Thursday in which she condemned the storming of the Capitol.
She said her statement was on behalf of the president, who has not personally condemned hundreds of his political supporters who broke through police lines to enter the Capitol on Thursday and disrupt congressional certification of Biden’s victory. The assault came after the president urged them to march on the Capitol at a rally outside the White House.
Most of Trump’s senior staff considered quitting following the incident at the Capitol, according to people familiar with the matter. But officials including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Liddell were concerned about what would unfold if they left early, the people said.
Some top-level officials are reluctant to quit “in large part because they’re afraid of who might replace them,” Trump’s former chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview on Thursday.
O’Brien was seen as a bellwether, according to a person familiar with the matter: had he resigned, many more administration officials likely would have followed.
However, one of Trump’s closest and longest-serving aides, Hope Hicks, was still considering resigning, the people said. She has rarely been seen in the White House in recent days.
Other political appointees across the administration weighed resignation, with many coming to the same conclusion: while disillusioned by the president and his behavior, it was better to stay on for the good of the country — particularly considering the the commander-in-chief’s state of mind, according to people familiar with the matter.
Guardrails on Trump
One person said administration officials needed to stay in their jobs to maintain guardrails around the president. The person expressed pride in the administration’s foreign policy achievements but fretted and success would be overshadowed by Wednesday’s events.
The people asked not to be identified because the discussions have been private.
A White House spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s aides have received hundreds of emails and texts from friends, family and supporters urging them to abandon the president, ratcheting up external pressure to resign.
One person described a feeling of guilt-by-association for remaining in the white House. But another described the president’s spell over American politics being broken, the curtain pulled back, and said former allies are distancing themselves.
Administration officials are torn between their desire to serve the country and the threat of damage to their reputation from remaining in Trump’s government, the person said.
Some of Trump’s aides worry the president may decide to fire much of his staff, sensing they have turned on him. But top officials decided it would be a disaster for the nation if resignations left the White House short-handed before Biden takes over Jan. 20.
That’s especially true of O’Brien, whose departure could leave the U.S. more vulnerable to foreign cyberattack or other threats, the people said. O’Brien has already lost subordinates including his top deputy, Matt Pottinger, who resigned Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao resigned Thursday, citing the storming of the Capitol, following Pottinger, first lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham, and the Council of Economic Advisers acting Chairman Tyler Goodspeed.
Some cabinet secretaries who remain in the government have indicated distance from Trump. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, for instance, called on the president to condemn the riot in a statement Thursday morning. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, one of Trump’s most loyal deputies, condemned the storming of the Capitol in a tweet.
“America is better than what we saw today at a place where I served as a member of Congress and saw firsthand democracy at its best,” Pompeo wrote — a remark aimed at the president, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
Liddell is the White House’s transition director, which would make his a particularly awkward departure. He’s working to make sure the building is ready to Biden’s team at 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 20, the people said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his senior staff at the agency have agreed they will remain in their jobs to ensure an orderly transition amid the pandemic-induced economic crisis, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Mnuchin and his deputy secretary, Justin Muzinich, are currently on a seven-country swing through northern Africa and the Middle East and do not plan to cut the trip short due to developments in Washington, according to another person familiar with the matter. Mnuchin is expected to return around Jan. 11, after nearly ten days abroad.
GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has been a key ally of Trump’s in Congress, appealed to top administration officials to stay in their posts.
“To those who believe you should leave your posts now to make a statement, I would urge you not,” Graham said at a press briefing Thursday. He said he spoke with Meadows Thursday morning, and had talked with Cipollone, who he said “is doing everything he can to help the transfer occur” with regard to the incoming administration.
Graham also had a call with Mnuchin, and appealed publicly for O’Brien to stay on.
Trump’s aides have a list of about 25 executive orders they still hope to issue before his term ends but realize they may only be able to finish a handful, said the people familiar with the matter. They described them as noncontroversial.
An order declaring that independent federal agencies are subject to White House oversight is among those that likely won’t be finished, they said.
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