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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on administration turnover and political ‘elasticity’

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss “off-the-charts” levels of staff turnover in the Trump administration, current poll numbers, the role of the president’s core supporters and the early field of Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential election.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While the White House deals with more staff changes, new polls give us a glimpse into what voters are thinking about notable Democrats and President Trump, as we head into a new year and gear up for the 2020 campaign season.

    To discuss all of this, we're joined by our Politics Monday duo, Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

    Hello to both of you. It is Politics Monday.

    So, let's talk first about some personnel changes at the top of the administration.

    Tam, the president let us know a while ago that John Kelly, his chief of staff, was leaving. And just sort of abruptly, it was announced that he was going to bring in as an acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who also happens to be heading up the Office of Management and Budget, big job.

    He is going to continue to hold that job while he is being White House chief of staff. Meanwhile, a change of the Department of Interior. Ryan Zinke is out.

    What are we to make of all this?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, if it seems there's been a lot of turmoil in the Trump administration, it's because there has.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tamara Keith:

    President Trump — right now, there are four people awaiting confirmation for Cabinet-level positions, and, already, he has had to — if you include chief of staff as part of the Cabinet, there are 11 positions, 12 depending on how you count, that he has had to fill vacancies for.

    So that was, you know, like second time around he had to fill vacancies. Or we're working to come up on the third time around on chief of staff and some of these others.

    It is remarkable. It is off the charts. He is lapping all of his recent predecessors in terms of Cabinet-level turnover, but also in high-ranking White House staff.

    A Brookings Institutions analysis finds 65 percent turnover in top-level White House staff. This is not normal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy, it's not as if there isn't — there is — has been change in other administrations. This is just a more rapid turnover.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

    It's more rapid. And some of it can be attributed to the fact that this was a group of people that were completely unprepared for staffing the White House, right? We heard all the stories. Hillary Clinton was well on her way for staffing her Cabinet and people in her immediate universe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Measuring the curtains, drapes or whatever.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, so it were.

    And, of course, remember that it was Chris Christie who was putting the transition together. And he was abruptly let go right after President Trump won.

    I think what's also notable is, Donald Trump ran on draining the swamp, right? We got to get rid of all these people who have all these ethical problems or who are putting the interests of corporate America or their other special interests above the American public.

    When you look at the turnover, it's not simply that people are leaving because they're burnt out or they're not experienced or they weren't ready to take the job. So many of them — and I had to go through — I forgot about some of these people — Tom Price at HHS.

    These are all people with ethical — who had ethical clouds over them when they were either pushed out or fired, Michael Flynn, Scott Pruitt from the EPA, Rex Tillerson, who wasn't — it wasn't an ethical problem, but, obviously, there was a problem of personality.

    The VA secretary, Shulkin, who had ethics problems, and now of course, we have the ethics issues surrounding…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, five or six Cabinet level..

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, all on — all with a cloud of ethical scandal around them.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And this is coming — Zinke made it pretty explicit that he was leaving in part because there are going to be investigations by a Democratically-controlled House. And he said he didn't want to put his family through the expense and the trouble of all of these investigations for what he says are unfounded allegations.

    If that is a reason to leave the administration, to avoid investigations, then there are other Cabinet secretaries who could end up leaving as well.

    I'm not convinced that Zinke is going to avoid all of the investigations just because he left the administration. But President Trump, at least politically, will be able to say, oh, that's not me. He's gone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. Well, it's still early. There are only two more years to go in the first term.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we're talking about the president. We mentioned a new poll. There is an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out and some others.

    Right now, this NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows the president has the support of 85 percent of Republicans. They approve of his job performance. At the same time, 56 percent of Americans say they think the country is moving in the wrong — is on the wrong track.

    The economy may be going well, but there's something that's bothering them. So, how do we understand that?

  • Amy Walter:

    What do we make of that?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Amy Walter:

    What seems to be bothering them is the president and the president's behavior, and that's been the dividing line here since he was candidate Trump.

    What I found fascinating about this poll, though, is when you look at the core group of voters that say they're going to vote for President Trump for reelection in 2020, and these are people that say they're definitely or likely to vote for him, that's about 38 percent of Americans who fall into that category, which isn't much different, quite frankly, from where Bill Clinton was at the end of 1993.

    Unfortunately, we don't have the '94 number there. So the percent of people who say they're going to vote for him not much different than a previous president.

    But 52 percent say they are not going to vote for President Trump, including 39 percent who say they definitely will not vote. That is very different from where Bill Clinton was. There was only 18 percent who said they definitely wouldn't vote for Bill Clinton — 14 percent who definitely wouldn't vote for Bill Clinton.

    So think about that, just that this core group — for as much as we talked about Trump's base and how significant they are to him, right?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How loyal.

  • Amy Walter:

    How loyal they are to him, and how he caters to them, they make up a very small, much smaller proportion of the electorate than those who are very disapproving of the president.

    And it's not — there's no elasticity here. The people who like him are going to stick with him forever and ever and ever. But the people who don't like him, the odds of them moving, that 52 percent moving into the "I may support Trump," gets harder and harder.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Several ways to look at these numbers.

    And then Democrat — I just want to ask you quickly, Tam, about some numbers on Democrats. People were asked — this was — I think this was just in Iowa — it was an Iowa poll, but it was the whole country. People are asked, which Democratic candidates do you like?

    Joe Biden came in first, then Bernie Sanders, and then Beto O'Rourke, who lost the race for Senate from Texas.

  • Tamara Keith:

    So what you have is a busload of people who say that they are likely to run for president on the Democratic side.

    Why do you have a busload of people running for president, potentially? Because of the numbers that Amy's talking about, because they see potential.

    But I would just say that, at this time in 2014, or whatever year it was, Jeb Bush was the leading candidate on the Republican side. With these giant fields, it's really, really unpredictable at this point.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's not going to stop us from talking about it, but it is really early.

  • Amy Walter:

    But it is really early.

    But the horse race is sort of irrelevant at this point. I love polls more than anybody. It's irrelevant. But the priorities are the most important.

    And, to me, it's 54 percent say they want to pick somebody who can beat Donald Trump. That is the number one priority of Democratic voters in Iowa.

  • Tamara Keith:

    They don't necessarily agree yet on what that is.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, thank you both.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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