U.S. transport, education secretaries quit in staff exodus after Capitol violence

  • “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” Elaine Chao wrote.
  • With less than two weeks left of Trump’s presidency, many aides were already heading for the door, making some of their resignations symbolic gestures.
Published January 8, 2021

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned on Thursday, joining a growing list of aides leaving President Donald Trump’s administration in protest at the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.

Chao, the wife of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, said in an email to staff that the mob attack “has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.” She said her resignation will take effect on Monday.

In a letter to Trump, DeVos said the attack on the Capitol was unconscionable. “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote, adding her resignation would be effective on Friday.

With less than two weeks left of Trump’s presidency, many aides were already heading for the door, making some of their resignations symbolic gestures.

But the sudden exodus suggested revulsion among some over Trump’s encouragement of supporters who brought violent chaos to the Capitol on Wednesday in an ultimately futile bid to prevent formal certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory.

The growing departures of key U.S. national security staffers could also deprive Trump of critical advice in the event of an international crisis in his final days in office.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest resignations.

Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, a leading aide on Trump’s China policy, quit abruptly on Wednesday, said a senior administration official.

He was followed on Thursday by at least five senior directors at the White House National Security Council responsible for advising Trump on Russia, the Middle East, Africa, defense policy and weapons of mass destruction, according to a senior administration official and a person familiar with the matter.

Tyler Goodspeed, acting chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also stepped down, a source familiar with the situation said.

Trump’s pledge on Thursday of an “orderly transition” on Jan. 20 was partly intended to head off further resignations, but one senior official told Reuters: “It’s not going to stop it.”

Help for successor

Chao, a labor secretary and deputy transportation secretary under previous Republican presidents, has led the department for four years. In an interview with Reuters on Dec. 31, Chao had said she planned to remain through Jan. 20.

On Thursday, she said “we will help my announced successor, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with taking on the responsibility of running this wonderful department.”

Chao made the announcement a day after McConnell condemned the violence and the effort by some Republican lawmakers to block certification of Biden’s victory. Trump has sought unsuccessfully to overturn the results with unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff, said he had resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland.

John Costello, deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, announced his departure in a blistering tweet, writing, “yesterday’s events were an unprecedented attack on the very core of our democracy - incited by a sitting president.”

The resignations of senior NSC directors, the sources said, included: Ryan Tully, European and Russian affairs; Erin Walsh, African affairs; Mark Vandroff, defense policy; Anthony Rugierro, weapons of mass destruction; and Rob Greenway, Middle Eastern and North African affairs. Greenway’s departure had already been in the works, one of the sources said.

Pottinger’s boss, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, had no plans to quit the NSC, which is responsible for coordinating U.S. foreign policy, the first official said. But sources familiar with the matter said O’Brien had seriously considered resigning.

Shortly after Trump appeared to finally acknowledge that Biden would take office, the White House on Thursday asked its more than 4,000 political appointees to submit letters of resignation by Jan. 20.

A White House official called it part of the normal transition process, but such a request usually goes out weeks before a transfer of power and was apparently held up by Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.

Isolated and angry

Trump has increasingly isolated himself inside the White House, relying on a small group of diehard loyalists and lashing out at those who dare to cross him.

An administration official insisted that “national security officials who are loyal to their oath to the Constitution will be standing watch until Inauguration Day and will then turn over power to the duly elected new president.”

Trump’s top four cabinet members – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen - were not expected to quit, but lower-profile cabinet secretaries could still leave, according to a person familiar with the matter.

A State Department adviser on Iran, Gabriel Noronha, was fired after tweeting that Trump was “entirely unfit to remain in office.”

First lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, also resigned on Wednesday. Two sources told Reuters that White House social secretary Rickie Niceta also quit, as did Sarah Matthews, a deputy White House press secretary.

Pottinger, a former Reuters and Wall Street Journal reporter who left journalism to join the U.S. Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, had served in the White House since Trump took office.

Trump has pursued hardline policies towards China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus, with relations at their worst level in decades.


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