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A List of Notable Presidential Firings Since 1951

Most were terminated outright; others left before the White House officially acted

Douglas MacArthur (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)
Douglas MacArthur (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)

Updated on Nov. 7, 2018 |

President Donald Trump, long known for his reality television show’s signature line, “You’re fired,” has continued its use during his time in office.

Here, Roll Call catalogues the last 70 years or so of presidents notably telling top officials to “take a hike.”

President Harry S. Truman through Trump:

Harry S. Truman

Douglas MacArthur, Commander of U.N. forces in Korea

Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination after privately pushing for a wider war with China and publicly criticizing Truman. After being dismissed, he was invited to address a joint session of Congress.

J. Howard McGrath, Attorney General

McGrath was fired amidst charges that the Justice Department was blocking tax investigations of members of Congress and other government officials.

John F. Kennedy

Allen Dulles, CIA Director

Dulles took the fall for the botched Bay of Pigs operation.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense

After presiding over the escalation of the Vietnam war, McNamara recommended a negotiated peace and withdrawal in 1967. His recommendations were rejected and he left office, later saying, “I do not know to this day whether I quit or was fired.”

Richard Nixon

Richard G. Kleindienst, Attorney General

H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff

John Erlichman, White House Adviser

John Dean, White House Council

Nixon fired Kleindienst, Haldeman, Erlichman and Dean as scapegoats for the Watergate break-in and subsequent scandal, declaring “there can be no whitewash at the White House.”

Archibald Cox, Special prosecutor, Watergate

On the notoriously dubbed Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliott Richardson to fire Cox after being issued a subpoena. Richardson refused and resigned. After receiving the same order, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also resigned. On the third try, Solicitor General Robert H. Bork agreed to execute the order. 

Gerald R. Ford

Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser

James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense

William Colby, CIA Director

Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President

On the so-called Halloween Massacre, Kissinger, Schlesinger and Colby were out (Kissinger retained his post as secretary of State). Brent Scowcroft was in as national security adviser, George H.W. Bush as CIA director, Donald Rumsfeld was to lead Defense and Dick Cheney moved up to be chief of staff (at 34-years-old, he became the youngest in the role in history).

The president also announced that day that Rockefeller had withdrawn from the 1976 presidential ticket, though he was still the current vice president. Bob Dole became Ford’s running mate in an election they lost to Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale.

Jimmy Carter

Joseph Califano, Secretary of H.E.W.

James Schlesinger, Secretary of Energy

W. Michael Blumenthal, Treasury Secretary

Brock Adams, Secretary of Transportation

Carter shook things up to show he was in charge and headed in the right direction. Instead, the public took it as a sign the administration was failing and desperate.

Alexander Haig (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)
Alexander Haig (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)

Ronald Reagan

Alexander Haig, Secretary of State

When Haig announced he was in charge following the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, a few feathers were ruffled. He lasted just a year longer.

Anne Gorsuch, EPA Administrator

The mother of the newest Supreme Court justice resigned under fire in 1983, amid charges of mismanagement of a $1.6 billion hazardous waste cleanup program.

George H.W. Bush

Lauro Cavazos, Secretary of Education

The first Hispanic Cabinet member was told to resign after he surprised the White House with a new policy that would block federal aid to colleges that offered scholarships designed for minority students.

Bill Clinton

William Sessions, FBI Director

In President Bill Clintons first year in office, he fired the FBI director who had been criticized for his mismanagement of the agency and for spending taxpayer money for his own benefit. He replaced Sessions with Louis Freeh, whose appointment Clinton later regretted.

Les Aspin, Secretary of Defense

After the massacre of the Black Hawk unit in Somalia, the former McNamara protege and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee twice offered Clinton his resignation. On the second occasion, Clinton accepted.

Joycelyn Elders, Surgeon General

Elders frequently ran afoul of the religious right, dismissing America’s “love affair with the fetus,” suggesting condoms be distributed at public schools and that comprehensive sex education should be taught. With Clinton besieged by critics in 1994, he parted ways with Elders.

Mike Espy, Secretary of Agriculture

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy was asked to resign a month before the 1994 midterms, under fire for his use of government perks and acceptance of gifts.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing investigating the firing of several U.S. Attorneys on Thursday, April 19, 2007.
Alberto Gonzales (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)

George W. Bush

Paul ONeill, Secretary of Treasury

ONeill, seen as a loose canon, and senior economic adviser Larry Lindsey were fired in 2002 as the economy stalled. Vice President Cheney was reported to have delivered the bad news.

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense

President Bush lost his majority in congress in 2006, largely due to the public’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A day after the election, Rumsfeld was out and former CIA director Robert Gates was in.

Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General

After months of public pressure stemming from scrutiny of his dismissal of US attorneys and charges his misled congress about NSA surveillance programs, Gonzales’ resignation was accepted “reluctantly.”

Alphonso Jackson, Secretary of HUD

A holdover from Bushs Texas days, Jackson, facing the collapse in the housing market and charges of corruption, cronyism and political retribution, was summoned to the White House and relieved of his duties as HUD secretary.

Stanley A. McChrystal. Photo by Ryan Kelly/Congressional Quarterly
Stanley A. McChrystal (CQ Roll Call Archive Photo)

Barack Obama

Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence

The former Admiral didn’t adapt well to the politics of civilian leadership. Engaging in losing turf wars with White House veterans, and vocally opposed to the Administration’s reliance on drone strikes, Blair quickly submitted his resignation when it was clear he would be fired.

Stanley McChrystal, Commander of International Security Assistance Force

Obama fired McChrystal after he and his subordinates were openly disdainful of their Washington leadership in a Rolling Stone feature story.

David Petraeus, Director of the CIA

An extramarital affair that devolved into mishandling of classified information led to Petraeus being asked to resign.

Michael Flynn, Director of Defense Intelligence Agency

Flynn was fired the first time for sharing sensitive information with foreign intelligence officials without authorization.

Donald Trump

Sally Yates, Acting Attorney General

Trump fired Yates when she sent out a memo instructing Justice staff not to defend the executive order banning travel by certain populations.

James Comey, FBI Director

Trump’s love-hate relationship with the FBI that ebbed and flowed with the Clinton and Russia investigations ended with a manila envelope delivered to Comey’s Washington office Tuesday evening. Comey was in California, and learned of his dismissal from news reports.

Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State

Trump responded “FAKE NEWS!” to reports in late 2017 that he was planning to fire his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Three and a half months later, a Trump tweet informed Tillerson he would indeed be replaced by Pompeo.

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General

Being the first senator to embrace Trump landed him a role as the president’s first attorney general. Once in office, though, Sessions was quickly at odds with the president. Caught misleading senators in his confirmation hearings about his contacts with Russians during the campaign, Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would have been in charge had the president not credited him with providing the inspiration and rationale to dismiss FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein’s conflict of interest led him to appoint former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel in charge of the investigation. Mueller’s probe has been a thorn in Trump’s side ever since, resulting in convictions and guilty pleas from many who once featured prominently in Trump’s campaign. One day after the 2018 midterms, Trump accepted the resignation letter he requested of Sessions. Sessions’ interim replacement, Matt Whitaker, is a critic of the Mueller probe he will assume control over.

Sources: CQ Almanac, New York Times and Washington Post.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android

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