Donald Trump Isn’t the Only President Who Loves Firing People
Before he became president, Donald Trump seemed to relish the task of firing people on his TV show, The Apprentice. He doesn’t see to have broken the habit once he moved into the Oval Office, either. But no matter what his critics say, he’s not the first president to have a surprising penchant for firing people who work at the White House.
Read on to learn about all the other presidents who seemed to love firing people. (Or at least made memorable dismissals during their time in office.) And get all the details on the staffers whom Trump has fired on page 15.
1. Abraham Lincoln
- 16th president of the United States
The Washingtonian characterizes Abraham Lincoln’s dismissal of General George McClellan as the presidential firing with the “biggest historical impact.” History reports that when Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac, he ended a “tortured relationship.” McClellan built the army during the early stages of the war. But as History reports, he proved a “sluggish and paranoid field commander.” McClellan “seemed unable to muster the courage to aggressively engage Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.”
Lincoln reportedly wrote of McClellan, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it.” After firing McClellan, Lincoln gave command of the army to Ulysses S. Grant. Grant led the Union Army to victory. and he later went on to serve two terms as president of the United States.
Next: This president almost got impeached for firing a Cabinet secretary.
2. Andrew Johnson
- 17th president of the United States
MEL Magazine characterizes Andrew Johnson’s firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as one of the most shocking in U.S. history. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton remained in office. But he opposed Andrew Johnson’s soft policies on Reconstruction. “Sensing an upcoming showdown, Congressional Republicans passed the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade Johnson (a Democrat) from firing cabinet members without the Senate’s approval.”
As MEL Magazine notes, that constituted a “gross violation of the separation of powers.” While the Republicans set a trap, Johnson fell for it. He violated the act by firing Stanton. So he was targeted with articles of impeachment. However, he escaped removal from office by a single vote.
Next: This president’s most notable firing split up his party.
3. William Howard Taft
- 27th president of the United States
MEL Magazine also characterizes William Howard Taft’s firing of the chief of the U.S. Forest Service as one of the most shocking in the history of the presidency. Gifford Pinchot, “basically the father of conservation in America” had pressured Taft to dismiss his boss, Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger. Pinchot took issue with Ballinger’s anti-conservation policies.
But Pinchot’s move backfired. Taft fired him for insubordination. And as MEL Magazine explains, the dismissal numbered among the factors that split the Republican Party between the conservatives who baked Taft and the progressives who sided with Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, the same split led Roosevelt to run against Taft. That split the Republican vote, and landed Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the Oval Office.
Next: This president removed a well-liked general.
4. Harry S. Truman
- 33rd president of the United States
Harry S. Truman famously fired removed General Douglas MacArthur from command of the Korean War. History characterizes the firing as a showdown that “reverberated throughout the rest of the Cold War.” MacArthur and Truman had very different opinions about how the U.S. military should conduct itself in the war. Truman favored a “limited war.” But MacArthur publicly advocated for a more expansive use of American military power.
Truman regarded MacArthur going public with his opinions as “rank insubordination.” The two clashed repeatedly. Eventually, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command. The president replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway. According to History, “Truman’s decision not only ended MacArthur’s military career, it ended the president’s political career as well.” Truman’s firing of the wildly popular general amounted to “political suicide.”
Next: This president fired his CIA director.
5. John F. Kennedy
- 35th president of the United States
Roll Call reports that the most notable firing during John F. Kennedy’s short tenure in the White House was the president’s dismissal of CIA director Allen Dulles. Dulles took the fall for the CIA’s botched operation to oust Fidel Castro by invading Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
The firing didn’t remain the only time that Dulles made the headlines, either. Following Kennedy’s assassination, Dulles served on the Warren Commission. (That group investigated the assassination.) But some have theorized that Dulles ordered Kennedy’s assassination — a pretty major accusation even among conspiracy theorists.
Next: This president parted ways with his secretary of Defense.
6. Lyndon B. Johnson
- 36th president of the United States
Roll Call characterizes Lyndon B. Johnson’s firing of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as the most notable dismissal of Johnson’s presidency. “After presiding over the escalation of the Vietnam war, McNamara recommended a negotiated peace and withdrawal in 1967,” the publication explains. “His recommendations were rejected and he left office.” Later, McNamara said, “I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired.”
According to The New York Times, Johnson once said of McNamara, “He’s like a jackhammer. No human being can take what he takes. He drives too hard. He is too perfect.” Nonetheless, the war became McNamara’s “personal nightmare,” according to the Times. McNamara “concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life.”
Next: This president parted ways with three employees at one time.
7. Richard Nixon
- 37th president of the United States
As History reports, Richard Nixon became known for the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In fact, this firing remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Watergate scandal. On October 20, 1973, Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
Cox had been tasked with investigating the break-in at the Watergate complex. He clashed with the White House over Nixon’s refusal to release secret Oval Office recordings. (Those recordings implicated the president in the break-in.).Nixon ordered Richardson and Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. But both refused and resigned in protest. Solicitor General Robert Bork then became attorney general and dismissed Cox.
Next: This president got his vice president off the ticket.
8. Gerald Ford
- 38th president of the United States
Another notable presidential firing? Gerald Ford’s “Halloween massacre.” Smithsonian Magazine characterizes this firing as “a bow to his party’s right wing in advance of his primary fight against Reagan.” Ford appointed Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Yet conservative Ford staffers viewed Rockefeller as too liberal. So White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Dick Cheney persuaded Ford to get Rockefeller off the ticket for the 1976 election. But that wasn’t the only change in the works.
In what became known as the “Halloween Massacre,” the president announced that Rockefeller had withdrawn from the ticket. He also announced that George H.W. Bush had replaced William Colby as director of the CIA. Additionally, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger was out and would be replaced by Rumsfeld. Henry Kissinger would remain secretary of state. But he would be replaced by Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser. Finally, Rumsfeld would be replaced by Cheney. And Cheney became the youngest chief of staff in White House history.
Next: This president fired four Cabinet secretaries.
9. Jimmy Carter
- 39th president of the United States
NPR reports that presidents’ firing of Cabinet secretaries remains very rare. Jimmy Carter goes down in history for firing four of his Cabinet secretaries. He made the move “saying that he wanted a new start,” according to NPR. “That was a time in which inflation was roaring, there was an energy crisis. He wanted to show that he was changing the terms of his administration.”
Carter asked for the resignations of the secretaries of Energy; Treasury; Health, Education, and Welfare; and Transportation. Unfortunately, the firings backfired on Carter. His approval ratings plunged. And as NPR notes, “People thought that that was a confession of the fact that Carter was saying that he was going down in flames.”
Next: This president fired 11,000 people in one fell swoop.
10. Ronald Reagan
- 40th president of the United States
The Washingtonian characterizes Ronald Reagan’s firing of members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization as the presidential firing with the “most victims.” Politico notes that in 1981, Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who were on strike and ignored the president’s order to return to work. Nearly 13,000 controllers had walked out after contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration collapsed.
The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) wanted an annual wage increase of $10,000 for the controllers. The union also asked for a four-day, 32-hour workweek. The FAA wouldn’t oblige. So union members went on strike. Reagan characterized the strike as illegal. And he threatened to fire anyone who failed to return to work within 48 hours. Interestingly enough, that wasn’t Reagan’s only notable firing. As Roll Call reports, Reagan also fired his secretary of state and EPA administrator.
Next: This president fired his secretary of Education.
11. George H.W. Bush
- 41st president of the United States
Roll Call points to George H.W. Bush’s firing of Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos as one of the most notable dismissals during his administration. As the publication explains, Bush told the nation’s first Hispanic Cabinet member to resign “after he surprised the White House with a new policy that would block federal aid to colleges tat offered scholarships designed for minority students.”
As The New York Times reports, Cavazos “issued a terse resignation letter that omitted the customary thanks to the President for the honor of serving in the Cabinet.” But Bush’s advisers had long considered Cavazos a weak link in the Cabinet.
Next: This president fired several powerful employees.
12. Bill Clinton
- 42nd president of the United States
Roll Call notes that Bill Clinton made many notable firings during his presidency. In his first year in office, he fired FBI Director William Sessions. Sessions had attracted criticism for his mismanagement of the agency and for spending taxpayer money for his own benefit. Clinton also accepted the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin after a 1993 U.S. raid on Somalia. In that raid, 18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters were lost.
Clinton also fired Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. Elders frequently clashed with the religious right. She dismissed America’s “love affair with the fetus.” She also suggested that public schools should distribute condoms. And she thought that they should teach comprehensive sex education. Clinton fired her in 1994. The president also asked Mike Espy, his secretary of agriculture, to resign a month before the 1994 midterms due to his use of government perks.
Next: This president fired several Cabinet secretaries.
13. George W. Bush
- 43rd president of the United States
George W. Bush didn’t even wait until he became president to try his hand at firing a White House employee. The Washingtonian reports that during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the commander in chief’s son convinced his dad to “let him do the dirty work when it was time to fire chief of staff John Sununu in 1991.”
As USA Today reports, Sununu made headlines “for inappropriately running up travel bills on the taxpayers’ dime. Sununu was forced to reimburse the government several thousand dollars, and the kerfuffle contributed to his termination as top aide to President George H.W. Bush.” The younger Bush fired Sununu. Bush took him on a walk to the horseshoe pit on the White House grounds to deliver the bad news. Later, during his own presidency, the younger Bush also parted ways with his secretary of treasury, secretary of defense, attorney general, and secretary of HUD.
Next: Barack Obama fired several powerful employees, too.
14. Barack Obama
- 44th president of the United States
Barack Obama didn’t shy away from firing members of his administration, either. As Roll Call reports, Obama parted ways with Dennis Blair, his director of national intelligence, who spent his time “engaging in losing turf wars with White House veterans” and vocally opposing the administration’s drone strikes.
Obama also fired Stanley McChrystal, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, “after he and his subordinates were openly disdainful of their Washington leadership in a Rolling Stone feature story,” according to Roll Call. Obama also famously asked CIA Director David Petraeus to resign after an extramarital affair that devolved into the mishandling of classified information. And Obama also fired Michael Flynn as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency for sharing sensitive information with foreign intelligence officials without authorization.
Next: Donald Trump has made headlines by firing members of his administration.
15. Donald Trump
- 45th president of the United States
One of Donald Trump’s (many) catchphrases is “You’re fired!” So it’s no surprise that he hasn’t shied away from firing many powerful members of his administration. Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates 11 days into her tenure for telling Department of Justice lawyers not to defend Trump’s “Muslim ban.” He fired national security adviser Mike Flynn after misleading Mike Pence about meetings with Russia’s ambassador. Trump also fired FBI Director James Comey over the FBI’s Russian election interference investigation.
Additionally, Trump fired White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and national security adviser Dina Powell. And recently, Trump announced that he would replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Many other employees have resigned. That includes Press Secretary Sean Spicer, deputy adviser Sebastian Gorka, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, Office of Public Liason communications director Omarosa Manigault-Newman, staff secretary Rob Porter, communications director Hope Hicks, and economic adviser Gary Cohn.
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