In Chu's case, after he delivered the news, the White House personnel team took over. Then-Director of Presidential Personnel Nancy Hogan and then-Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu formulated a plan. They asked Chu when he wanted to leave and worked backward to decide when to make the information public. And they emphasized the need to keep the decision quiet until they were ready to make the announcement.
Next, under the guidance of the general counsel—the president's top lawyer—a Cabinet secretary typically drafts a short, simple, "I hereby formally resign" letter. (Because the president isn't going to read it, and because most government correspondence can be made public under the Freedom of Information Act, less is generally more here.) The White House also gives departing secretaries an opportunity to thank department staff and to reflect on their Cabinet tenure in writing. Some secretaries make their farewells short and sweet. Others, like Chu, go on a bit longer. According to the former senior official, Chu stayed up late crafting his 3,800-word "Dear Colleagues" letter, which touched on his policy achievements, included a rebuttal to climate-change deniers, and incorporated a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.
The last item caught the White House off guard. When aides reviewed Chu's draft,"They were like, 'Is he comparing himself to Martin Luther King?' " says the former official, laughing. "And [his staff was] like, 'No, no, no. He's just using an illustrative quote.' "
If Chu stumbled anywhere in the process, it was at the end. The White House prefers a secretary to stay until his or her successor takes office, but the Senate took longer than expected to confirm Ernest Moniz to the post. Chu left in mid-April, before the transition was complete, and Dan Poneman, the deputy Energy secretary at the time, had to step in as acting secretary until late May. But Chu mostly got it right: He gave the White House adequate time to prepare, he communicated with officials, and he kept the news to himself until officials were ready to announce his decision.
What the public sees is largely theater—which, in the White House's ideal scenario, is well-rehearsed and carefully produced.
What the White House doesn't like are surprises. For example, if a Cabinet secretary wants to leave his or her post at the end of the first term, ideally that process begins with something like a call to the White House chief of staff, who then arranges either a phone call or meeting with the president, who thanks the secretary for his or her service.
What that process doesn't generally involve is telling a couple of reporters after a National Press Club event that you are planning to leave at the term's end. "This has been a great run," Ray LaHood, Obama's first Transportation secretary, said after one such event in October 2011, "I've enjoyed it"—although he hadn't yet told the president he was planning to leave. (LaHood, who declined to comment on his resignation process, ultimately stayed on the job until July 2013, when the Senate confirmed then-Mayor Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, North Carolina, to succeed him.)