New WHTP Research on Presidential-Press Relations
In one of our periodic reviews, Martha Joynt Kumar reviews presidential interchanges with the press over the last six presidencies and as of 30 months into their administrations. Read the report: WHTP2021-47 — Kumar, Six Presidents’ Interchanges with Reporters at 30 Months [8-13-2019].
“The group of approximately two dozen White House staff titled assistant to the president form a president’s core leadership team making turnover at this level particularly important for the stability and direction of the presidential decision-making process. Among the assistants to the president group, President Trump’s White House had the highest turnover of top-ranked staff experienced by any recent president. At 20 months, two-thirds of assistants appointed by President Trump in his first year in office left or announced their imminent departure. At two years, the number rose to 73% of his first year Assistants staff member who left their position. That level of turnover led to leadership changes in the dozen White House offices that are key to the processing of presidential decisions; to the policies a chief executive develops, initiates, and implements; and to those units charged with managing a president’s relationships with those outside of the administration. Without a team working together, it is difficult for a president’s staff to coordinate its plans and work as well as develop and articulate commonly shared presidential priorities and goals.”
New WHTP Research on Appointments
This WHTP research paper reports on efforts to document the forces affecting the last forty years of appointments politics. It focuses on the forces that affect each of the separate stages in the appointments process in the Executive Branch and in the Senate. It concludes:
- Early transition planning — especially identifying and preparing for key appointments — speeds deliberations on those appointments in all stages.
- Aggressive presidential initiative in the early days of the administration — both the first 100 days and the first year — speeds deliberations on its appointments in all stages.
These findings suggest a number of “internal” changes that would speed appointments while promoting bipartisanship in appointments politics. To read more on this research and the supported reform suggestions, click here.
WHTP Basic Transition Services
Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has interviewed a wide range of Assistants to the President about the best ways to carry out the president’s transition to governing. These interviews and the briefing materials from these interviews, compiled by scholars who specialize in the various operations of a White House, provide a guide for the new presidential team based on the experiences of those who have borne the burdens of White House duty.
WHTP’s Original Research (both policy studies and scholarly articles) on Staff Turnover, Press Relations, Appointments, and White House Routine
Current WHTP Studies on White House Staff Turnover
One of the basic principles WHTP emphasizes underscores the stresses uniquely associated with White House work life. See Martha Joynt Kumar’s reports on staff life found in Martha Joynt Kumar and Terry Sullivan’s transition book, White House World. Her latest research project documents turnover among senior White House staff. Here are some of the take-aways:
- President Trump has the highest turnover of top-tier staff of any recent president at the 17 month mark. The figures for losses at the Assistant to the President level at 17 months are: Trump 61%; Obama 14%; George W. Bush 5%; Clinton 42%; George H. W. Bush 19%; Reagan 29%.
- As of June 20, 2018, among the designated highest level staff, there are 19 of the original 31 Assistants to the President or the equivalent who have left or publicly announced they are leaving their posts. Additionally, six Assistants who came in as their replacements also left. Total: 25 Assistants to the President have left or indicated they are leaving their White House posts.
- Twelve people remain at the White House who were the original staff member appointed to hold a position titled Assistant to the President.
Current WHTP Studies On Presidential-Press Relations
WHTP’s latest information on presidential-press relations:
- Presidents communicate in a variety of ways and forums.  There are addresses to the nation and to Congress, weekly radio and television addresses, and speeches and remarks he regularly gives. Additionally, responding to reporters’ queries has been a consistent part of a President’s public presentations. At the 18 month mark for the six most recent presidents, approximately a third or more of their public appearances were ones where they responded to reporters’ questions. The three forums where presidents take questions are: press conferences (joint and solo); short question and answer sessions; and interviews.
- Adding together the numbers of press conferences, short question and answer sessions, and interviews, there are similarities among the presidents during their first 18 months in office. With the exception of President Clinton who had more press interchanges than any modern President (506), the three most recent presidents have similar numbers for their sessions where they took questions. The numbers are: Trump 372; Obama 308; George W. Bush 318. Their differences lie in the type and balance of forums they favor. President Trump, for example, favors short question and answer sessions while President Obama chose interviews as his preferred forum.
- Except for President Trump, recent presidents are almost indistinguishable in the total numbers of occasions where they spoke publicly. These numbers include events and occasions where they did and did not answer reporters’ queries. The totals for Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton were similar through their first 547 days. Obama: 1,007; George W. Bush 982; Clinton 1,111. With 825, President Trump had substantially fewer public speaking events than his three recent predecessors, but he found Twitter to be a useful alternative to set speeches. By the time he became President, Twitter had a broad reach, which it did not have during earlier presidencies.
- Twitter is an important part of President Trump’s public communications. His tweets serve as a way to set his narrative for the day. During his first 18 months in office, President Trump had 4,052 tweets from his @realDonaldTrump account going out to 53.4 million followers as of July 30th. These public statements serve as a way to begin his morning often followed by short question and answer sessions where he can expand on his tweets. He used Twitter successfully during the campaign, which made it easy to integrate into his presidential communications strategies.
- With the rise of cable television in the 1990s and its constant news coverage as well as with the development of alternative ways of communicating with the public through social media, presidents have increasingly spent less time than earlier presidents did answering questions in traditional White House solo press conferences. President Trump held one White House solo session in 18 months while over time Presidents Obama , George W. Bush , Clinton , and George H. W. Bush  held decreasing numbers of them.
Current WHTP Studies on Presidential Appointments at Two Year Mark:
The average presidency filled almost twice as many positions as Trump
See our appointments page for more information on appointments. There you will find basic tracking information on the pace of appointments in the Trump administration by comparison with administration’s dating to the rise of the modern appointments system, effectively President Reagan’s first year. Two headlines from that analysis: Trump delays in critical positions outstrips previous administrations by an ever larger margin. The Trump administration performance on appointments now lags the average administration by eight and half to ten months, depending on the topic. In NASCAR terms, previous administrations are getting close to “lapping” the Trump performance. Some already have.
The pace of appointments in both the executive and in the Senate accounts for the ability of any administration to carry out its responsibilities to the electorate and to the nation. Appointments fulfill the president’s agenda set by the election and they also stand up the critical functions of the national government, from transportation to space to global economics and national defense.
The analysis reported here concentrates on the pattern of deliberations across the entire appointments process, all four stages, rather than the central focus of most press reports, the president’s recent complaints, and most scholarly research — solely, the Senate’s deliberations on nominees.
The four stages:
- WH Identifies: The White House search for appropriate nominees from available candidates. Typically, this stage culminates in an announcement of the “president’s intent to nominate” a candidate.
- Executive Review: The executive branch conducts vetting of the candidate. This stage culminates in sending credentials to the Senate as an official nominee.
- Sen Comm Vetting: The first of two Senate stages, a committee investigates the nominee, culminating in a committee report and recommendation to the full Senate.
- Sen Floor Process: The final disposition of a nominee in the Senate, culminating in floor vote to confirm the nominee.
Additional Measures: We summarize the data on nominations with three averages relevant to concerns about delays in the Senate stages. Note, that (100-% total in Senate) equals the percent of time an appointment takes to clear the executive for referral to the Senate for consideration.
- Avg Length: The average length of appointments from the start in the White House to the final disposition in the Senate.
- Avg Senate: The average time a nomination is in the Senate.
- % of Total in Senate: The average time in the Senate divided by the average length.
Brief Headlines on Pace of Filling out the Government
- Overall, President Trump’s nominations continues to trail previous administrations, now by seven months, the worst performance in 40 years.
- Overall, President Trump has filled a bit more than one-third of the 980 positions WHTP tracks. This pace also continues to trail the average administration but by a bit more than 11.5 months; again, the worst performance in 40 years.
- On nominations, the Clinton administration has pulled a full year ahead of the Trump performance, “lapping” the Trump team. The Clinton administration also lapped the Trump administration. The Obama and Reagan administration finished the two years eight months ahead of the Trump team.
- On filling positions, the average presidency has filled almost twice as many positions as President Trump.
Brief Headlines on Pace of Deliberations on Nominations
- Overall, the largest part of delayed deliberations occurs in the executive branch. On average about 80% of the time between the occurrence of a vacancy and the final Senate disposition of a nomination for that position occurs in the Executive search and vetting processes. President Trump’s executive deliberations amount to around 70% or under the average for all previous presidencies.
- The length of deliberations on critical and normal positions have begun to converge. Earlier, critical positions received more prompt deliberations.
- President George H. W. Bush’s administration represents the inflection point in lengthening deliberations. For example, the increase in Senate deliberations in the Bush ’41 administration amount to a 9 point increase over that of the Reagan presidency just six years earlier. The Trump experience amounts to another 10 point increase over the HW Bush experience – a 10 point increase in nearly 30 years.
This table covers all those positions that WHTP tracks. The numbers do not include most ambassadorships, US Attorneys, Military Officers, and US Marshals. WHTP considers these to execute policy not make it. (See below and our appointments page for a description)
|Locus of Deliberations (980 positions)
|% of Total
This table covers those positions that WHTP considers critical to the national government meeting its critical responsibilities — “standing up” the American national government. (See below and our appointments page for a description)
|Locus of Deliberations (critical positions)
|% of Total
See our Appointments page for more detailed information and projects out to the end of the first year.
The White House Transition Project documents the pace at which a new administration fills out the American executive branch through its appointments power. WHTP measures the pace of appointments in four ways.
- First, we track 980 presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation (known as “PAS” positions). For these appointments, we track the pace of nominations and the pace of confirmations, measuring both against a projected historical average based on the three previous administrations.
- Second, on these 980 PAS positions, WHTP measures the differences between the vetting process in the White House and the process in the Senate to assess the contributions of each to the overall process. For the White House, we clock the time from an announcement that the president intends to nominate someone to the day that persons credentials show up at the Senate. This measures how long the Executive vetting takes. Then WHTP considers two separate measures of Senate deliberations. Both track nominations from the moment the Senate reports receiving credentials to the day the Senate makes a decision (confirm, deny, or return). WHTP reports that processing in two ways: a 10 day average for how long nominations received during that ten day period have taken (called “processing pace”) and a 10 day average for how long it has taken the Senate for nominations decided on during that period (called “processing time”). The first (pace) looks forward from the moment of nomination and the second (time) looks backward from decision points.
- Third, WHTP identifies and tracks a core of 213 leadership positions critical to the functions of government. These positions include those concerned with national security, managing the economy, managing the executive agencies, and carrying through on key agenda items. We believe that successfully filling out this second group of positions effectively “stands up” the American executive.
- Fourth, WHTP assesses the pace of fully standing up the critical leadership positions, including both presidential nominations and those already in place on inauguration day, using a direct comparison with President Obama’s performance.
WHTP reports these results in 10 day increments. See our Appointments page for more detailed information.
For the 2017 cycle, the White House Transition Project and our partners at Rice University’s Baker Institute and the National Archives have presented a series of conferences covering a range of issues associated with presidential transitions.