And then there were none.
O. K., “none” is a bit of an exaggeration. But with Friday’s inevitable resignation of Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s secretary of labor, it is reasonable for the public to be asking: Who the heck is running the federal government?
All the best people. That’s what Candidate Trump promised the nation if elected. He didn’t have experience in government, but he claimed to have an eye for talent and vowed to surround himself with exceptional aides and advisers.
His administration has indeed proved exceptional — in its instability, its swampiness and its turnover at the top. Keeping track of just the top-tier departures requires an advanced knowledge of spreadsheets.
The reasons for the many defenestrations — they are occurring on almost a burning-building scale — can be broken down into a handful of categories, including scandal, getting crosswise with Mr. Trump’s ego, quitting on principle and sheer exhaustion.
While there are too many to list here, some of the highlights include:
Michael Flynn, national security adviser, was forced out in February 2017 after misleading administration officials about his inappropriate chitchat with the Russian ambassador.
Tom Price, health and human services secretary, resigned under pressure in September 2017 over his fondness for high-price chartered air travel.
Rob Porter, White House secretary, left in February 2018 amid accusations of abuse from two ex-wives.
Kirstjen Nielsen, homeland security secretary, was pushed out in April as a result of her insufficient enthusiasm for carrying out the president’s most brutal immigration ideas.
Ryan Zinke, interior secretary, left in December, plagued by multiple investigations into his business dealings and policy decisions.
Jim Mattis, defense secretary, resigned in December in the wake of Mr. Trump’s announced plans to pull American troops from Syria.
Jeff Sessions, attorney general, was forced out in November after more than a year of public abuse by the president, who considered him insufficiently loyal.
Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was forced out last July over a string of scandals ranging from having government aides run his personal errands to having the taxpayers buy him a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.
John Kelly, chief of staff, left in December after a tenure marked by a tumultuous relationship with the president.
Anthony Scaramucci lasted 11 days as White House communications director before getting fired in July 2017 for talking trash about other members of the administration.
Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, learned he’d been fired in March 2018 from a presidential tweet.
H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, resigned in March 2018, having never established a rapport with the president.
As for Mr. Acosta, he resigned this week in response to public outrage over his role in arranging a lenient plea deal in 2008 for Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of sexually abusing teenage girls and running a child sex trafficking ring.
Counting interim leaders, there have been seven communications chiefs; four heads each of the Departments of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services; four national security advisers; three secretaries of defense; and three press secretaries.
The Brookings Institution puts the turnover in Mr. Trump’s “A Team” — defined as top decision makers within the executive office of the president (which does not include cabinet secretaries) — at 74 percent as of Monday. No other modern administration came even close to that.
As key advisers leave, they are being replaced with “acting” chiefs, temporary leaders who do not require confirmation by the Senate, together with the inconvenience of public hearings to establish whether they’re qualified for their jobs. With Mr. Acosta’s departure, the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security and Defense will be headed by “acting” secretaries. There are acting directors of the nation’s top three immigration agencies — the Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection; an acting United Nations ambassador; an acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner; an acting White House chief of staff; an acting Office of Management and Budget director; acting secretarys of the Army and the Air Force; and an acting Federal Emergency Management Agency director — just to name a few. There is no deputy secretary of homeland security.
All this dysfunction presents something of a conundrum for anyone alarmed by Mr. Trump’s governing priorities: On the one hand, would America be better off if this president had a stable team of skilled lieutenants who shared his vision and were dedicated to enacting it, from building a wall to pretending Russia isn’t trying to subvert American democracy? The results haven’t been so great when Mr. Trump has gotten the sort of pliant agents he prefers. As retrograde as Jeff Sessions’s positions were on criminal justice, the country has not traded up in acquiring as attorney general William Barr.
On the other hand, such churn and so many unfilled top posts are, to put it mildly, not ideal in terms of keeping the government running smoothly. As a tropical storm bears down on New Orleans, tensions mount in the Persian Gulf and opioids continue to ravage communities across the country, it is impossible to argue that American citizens are better off with such incompetence at the top.
From income inequality to bigotry to climate change, Mr. Trump didn’t create all the problems confronting the country. But through misguided policies he is making some of them worse. And by driving the federal government more deeply into debt while sowing chaos throughout the bureaucracy, he is doing long-term damage to its capacity to contend with these challenges when an administration with more sensible priorities eventually takes over.
In the meantime, if you find yourself with a chance to thank a federal worker, please do it. Americans are lucky that, even in a time when the leadership at the top is wrongheaded or clownish or simply absent, hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens remain committed to protecting them from foreign adversaries or rising waters or tainted food, watching over their airways and highways and savings accounts, and delivering their mail.