History Stories

Rex Tillerson is out. Here’s who left more quickly—and who stayed a lot longer.

Sure, Rex Tillerson’s 13-and-a-half-month tenure as Secretary of State was kind of short. But he’s not the first top White House official to be kicked out early, especially in Donald Trump’s administration, which lost National Security Advisor Michael Flynn within the first month. Below are the White House employees with the shortest tenures in history. 

The quickest ouster of a communications director was less than one week.

In 1987, John O. Koehler resigned from his position as Ronald Reagan’s communications director after barely a week on the job. Just before he started, NBC News had reported that the German-born appointee was a member of Jungvolk, the Hitler Youth program, when he was 10 years old.

White House Communications Director John Koehler. (Credit: Dennis Cook/AP Photo)

White House Communications Director John Koehler. (Credit: Dennis Cook/AP Photo)

The news soon became a public scandal with conflicting accounts. Koehler said he’d already told the White House about this during his security clearance, the White House asserted that it hadn’t known, and Reagan blamed his wife Nancy for a supposed oversight in his background check. Koehler began his post on Sunday, March 1 and was asked to resign on Saturday, March 7. However, his last official day in office was Friday, March 13, meaning he served 13 days.

The shortest term served for a communications director was less than two weeks.

Koehler may have had the shortest period between beginning his job and getting the boot, but Anthony Scaramucci narrowly beat him in terms of actual time served. The Trump administration forced Scaramucci out just 11 days after he started as communications director (the same position as Koehler’s), with his termination effective immediately.

Scaramucci was a polarizing figure from the very beginning of his tenure, which spanned from July 21, 2017 to July 31, 2017. One of the major factors in his downfall was an impromptu phone call he made to former New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, during which Scaramucci threatened to fire his whole staff and made a colorful comment about White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (less than a month later, Bannon also resigned). These antics made Scaramucci’s ouster one of the most notable in a series of unusually short tenures that have characterized Trump’s administration.

Nearly a quarter of all national security advisors in U.S. history served under Reagan.

After Jimmy Carter briefly elevated the National Security Council advisor role to cabinet level in 1977, Ronald Reagan demoted it again. The position proved particularly problematic for Reagan, who churned through six advisors in his eight-year presidency, including Robert “Bud” McFarlane and John Poindexter (both of whom were later implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal).

Retired General Mike Flynn at a rally for Donald Trump in Green Bay, Wisconsin, October 17, 2016. (Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Retired General Mike Flynn at a rally for Donald Trump in Green Bay, Wisconsin, October 17, 2016. (Credit: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Still, Donald Trump’s administration holds the record for shortest-serving national security advisor. Lt. General Michael Flynn resigned from the position on February 13, 2017, just 24 days into Trump’s presidency.

Illness and (moodiness) doomed some U.S. cabinet members.

There’s a tie for the shortest-serving U.S. cabinet members. The first, Thomas M.T. McKennan, represented Pennsylvania in Congress before leaving the House in 1843, vowing never to return to government. The popular (but mercurial) legislator was pressed into service again seven years later, when Millard Fillmore nominated him as the nation’s second secretary of the interior. McKennan regretted taking the gig almost immediately, and quit after just 11 days.

Elihu Washburne, a congressman from Maine who was an early supporter of the nascent Republican party and a political ally of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, was nominated as secretary of state by Grant in 1869. Washburne had always intended for his cabinet stay to be brief (Grant had promised to name him the U.S. minister to France), but it was cut even shorter than intended when Washburne fell ill, also resigning 11 days in.

In all, 13 cabinet members have served for less than 100 days.

Another 76 (out of a little more than 500) left their posts within a year. On average, cabinet members serve approximately 1,118 days (a little over three years) between their confirmation and resignation, according to a 2014 study by the Washington Post.

Going back to the Reagan era, there have been only seven cabinet members who have served for the full eight years of their president’s administration, including four of Bill Clinton’s cabinet picks (his secretaries of education, interior and health and human services, as well as Attorney General Janet Reno).

 James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture, with President William McKinley, 1901. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture, with President William McKinley, 1901. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

One cabinet member reigns supreme.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few officials hung around for year after year. And no cabinet member in history has come close to the achievement of James Wilson. Nominated by William McKinley in 1897 as his secretary of agriculture, Wilson would remain in the position for 16 consecutive years, throughout the terms of Republican Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The Scottish-born Wilson was a former U.S. congressman from Iowa who had also taught agriculture at what is now Iowa State University. There he championed the work of a young George Washington Carver.

Wilson radically reimagined the department’s work, using scientific-based data to improve everything from weather forecasting and soil type mapping to the development of home economics programs. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established a federal standard for food safety and inspections. Wilson left government in March 1913, following the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson—after serving for more than 5,800 days.

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