U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced her resignation on Thursday, the first Cabinet member to join a growing list of President Donald Trump's staff leaving in protest over the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the mob attack "has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside." She said her resignation will take effect on Monday, nine days before Trump leaves office.
Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, a leading figure in the development of Trump's China policy, quit abruptly on Wednesday, said a senior administration official.
He was followed by Ryan Tully, senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council, said a second senior official and a person familiar with the matter.
Republican Trump's pledge on Thursday that there would be an "orderly transition" to the presidency of Democrat Joe Biden on Jan. 20 was partly intended to head off further resignations, but the second official told Reuters: "It's not going to stop it."
With two weeks left of Trump's presidency, many aides were already heading for the door, but the sudden departures suggested revulsion among some over his encouragement of mobs of supporters who stormed the Capitol on Wednesday in an ultimately futile bid to prevent formal certification of Biden's election victory.
The images filled television screens in the United States and around the world, forever marking Trump's presidency.
HELP FOR SUCCESSOR
Chao, a labor secretary and deputy transportation secretary under previous Republican presidents, has led the department for four years. In an interview with Reuters on Dec. 31, Chao had said she planned to remain on the job through Jan. 20.
On Thursday, she was at pains to say that "we will help my announced successor, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with taking on the responsibility of running this wonderful department."
Among those who were spurred to quit was Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff who resigned his post as a special envoy to Northern Ireland.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see more of my friends resign over the course of the next 24 to 48 hours," he said on CNBC.
Further departures are especially likely at the NSC, one of the officials said. It coordinates U.S. foreign policy among federal agencies and maintains close contacts with foreign governments, so the loss of key staff could raise questions about national security as the new administration takes over.
Pottinger’s boss, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, has no plans to quit, the first official said. But sources familiar with the matter said O'Brien had considered quitting.
“A strong national security team remains in place at the State Department, the Department of Defense, Treasury, the intelligence community and the National Security Council", the official said, adding that the team had been guarding against any foreign threats prior to Biden's inauguration.
The White House had no immediate comment.
Confirming Pottinger's departure, O'Brien tweeted: "His work lead to a great awakening in our country and around the world to the danger posed by the Chinese Communist Party."
ISOLATED AND ANGRY
Trump has increasingly isolated himself in the White House, relying on a small group of diehard loyalists and lashing out at those who dare to cross him, including Vice President Mike Pence, said four sources familiar with the matter.
An administration official said that "national security officials who are loyal to their oath to the constitution will be standing watch until Inauguration Day and will then turn over power to the duly elected new president."
There has been no indication that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a close Trump ally, plans to resign. But he put daylight between himself and Trump by condemning the mob that overran the Capitol as "criminals".
Trump's top cabinet secretaries – Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen - are not expected to quit, but other lower-profile cabinet members could still leave their posts, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Former U.S. diplomats said it was unlikely there would be major departures at the State Department, where staffers have long endured Trump's accusations that they are part of a "deep state" seeking to frustrate his policies.
"It would be very strange for people to self-immolate just when they see a ship on the horizon," a former State Department official said, on condition of anonymity.
First lady Melania Trump's chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, also resigned on Wednesday. Two sources told Reuters that White House social secretary Rickie Niceta also quit, as did Sarah Matthews, a deputy White House press secretary.
Pottinger, a former Reuters and Wall Street Journal reporter who left journalism to join the U.S. Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, had served in the White House since the beginning of Trump's presidency in 2017.
His departure comes amid high tension with Beijing. Trump's administration has pursued hardline policies towards China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus, and relations have sunk to their worst level in decades.