But however unprecedented many aspects of the Trump administration are, this one is not unique. You don’t have to go very far back to find cases of first-term presidents facing legal problems or dim political prospects who have replaced their chiefs of staff. Examining how Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush were able to persuade candidates to take the job shows why Trump is likely to struggle to find a top-caliber recruit.
In 1988, Bush had cruised to election, with the help of James Baker, not that Baker was delighted about it. (“Do you think I enjoyed leaving the office of secretary of Treasury, being fifth in line to the presidency, to come over here to be called a handler?” he snapped at a reporter.) But by summer 1992, the 41st president was faltering. He’d had to sack Chief of Staff John Sununu in an ethics scandal, and Samuel Skinner, the replacement, was dispatched to the presidential campaign as Bush tried to fend off a challenge from Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
That left Bush without a chief of staff, and he set his sights on Baker, who had previously enjoyed a very successful stint as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Baker didn’t want the job, just as he hadn’t wanted to run the 1988 campaign. He now had an even more enviable job as secretary of state. But Bush twisted his arm, as only Bush could: The men had decades of history together. In the wake of Bush’s death at age 94, Baker has recounted how Bush helped him recover from his grief after his first wife died of cancer, in 1964. (Bush’s solution in that case was also to draft Baker into a job—running a U.S. Senate campaign.)
The chief of staff’s job, then as now, wasn’t desirable.
“Baker has his work cut out for him when he jumps to the White House,” Fred Barnes reported in The New Republic. “He not only has to take charge of the campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton. He’s got to take charge of Bush. Disciplined, focused, task-oriented in the first thirty-three months of his presidency, Bush has lost control in the last nine.”
Baker, faced with a desperate request from an old and close friend, could hardly say no, so he took the job.
As it happened, it wasn’t enough: Bush lost to Clinton in November 1992. And less than two years later, Clinton found himself in a dilemma of his own. Clinton’s signature policy initiative, an overhaul of the health-care system, had crashed and burned. His administration was beset by scandal, tragedy, and legal investigations. Republicans were headed for a strong midterm result. And Clinton’s West Wing was a mess, setting a standard for chaos unmatched until the Trump administration eclipsed it.
Clinton decided that his man was Leon Panetta, then serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget, like Mulvaney. Panetta, like Baker, didn’t want the job, preferring to remain where he was and to steer clear of the intramural fighting in the West Wing. But Panetta was the consummate government insider, driven to work by a mixture of ambition and sense of duty. (A former D.C. staffer and California congressman, he later served as secretary of defense and CIA director under Barack Obama.)