Shortest Stays in the White House

Which staff members had the shortest tenure in the White House? (Hint: Anthony Scaramucci doesn’t count.)

White House illustration

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Yesterday, Communications-Director-in-Waiting Anthony Scaramucci resigned before he had officially assumed his post, so it can’t be said that he had the shortest tenure in the current White House — because he didn’t have any tenure. General Michael Flynn, who announced in February that he was leaving his position of National Security Advisor, had served just 24 days.

Death and Illness

Two dozen days is a pretty short stay for a Cabinet member, but he does not hold the record for brevity of tenure. That honor goes to Thomas W. Gilmer, a Virginia congressman who was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President John Tyler. He assumed the office on February 19, 1844, and died 10 days later.

Death was also the culprit in the short term of office for President William Henry Harrison, who is still remembered for three things: winning the Battle of Tippecanoe, delivering the longest inaugural address, and dying 32 days after becoming president. His unexpected death is now attributed to typhoid, a common ailment at the time in Washington, which hadn’t yet engineered a proper system for disposing of sewage.

And while Elihu Washburne didn’t die while serving as Secretary of State under Ulysses S. Grant, he became ill after his appointment on March 5, 1869, and resigned 11 days later.

A few of our vice presidents had short terms because the president under whom they served died unexpectedly. This was the case for John Tyler, who succeeded William Henry Harrison after his death from typhoid, making Tyler’s vice presidency the shortest on record, at 33 days. Andrew Johnson served as VP for only 43 days and became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Out of Time

Luckily, death was not a typical reason for a short period of service. More commonly, a president’s term would end and his staff would be replaced. When President James Buchanan left office, so did his recently appointed postmaster general, Horatio King, who served just 21 days.

Similarly, the first agriculture secretary served just 20 days. Previously the Commissioner of Agriculture, Norman J. Colman had pushed President Grover Cleveland to create a Department of Agriculture. He was named its first secretary on February 15, 1889. Unfortunately, President Cleveland left office 20 days later, and so did Colman.

And when President Lyndon Johnson left office, so did Treasury Secretary Joseph Barr, after only 21 days in the position. Because of his short tenure, Barr’s signature appeared only on the one-dollar bill.

Politics and Drama

While these resignations occurred during peaceful transitions, several were the result of White House tensions. Edwin M. Stanton briefly served as Attorney General for the last days of President Buchanan’s term. Stanton perceived that Buchanan was too soft in his treatment of the South before the Civil War and resigned after 76 days. But he was recalled by President Lincoln to become Secretary of War, a post he held for six years.

More recently, Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned on October 20, 1973, rather than comply with President Nixon’s orders to fire the special prosecutor looking into the Watergate scandal. He had lasted 150 days.

Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Reince Preibus, served 189 days — the shortest time anyone has served in this position. Preibus resigned, but many believe he was pushed out after a stormy six months in the White House.

Michael Dubke accepted the position of White House Communications Director in March 2017. Anticipating another staff shake-up, he submitted his resignation to President Trump 85 days later. He had replaced Sean Spicer — and was succeeded by him as well. Spicer served in the White House for 183 days as Communications Director, press secretary, or some combination of the two, before resigning in July rather than working with Scaramucci.

Not all short terms are accompanied by death or drama: Friends talked Congressman Thomas McKennan into becoming Interior Secretary for President Fillmore. He didn’t think he would like the job. After 29 days, he was certain, and he left.

Shortest Stays in the White House

Person Position President Served Tenure Reason for Leaving
Thomas W. Gilmer Secretary of the Navy John Tyler 10 days death
Elihu Washburne Secretary of State Ulysses S. Grant 11 days illness/resignation
Norman J. Colman Secretary of Agriculture Grover Cleveland 20 days end of the president’s term
Horatio King Postmaster General James Buchanan 21 days end of the president’s term
Michael Flynn National Security Advisor Donald Trump 24 days resignation
Thomas McKennan Secretary of the Interior Millard Fillmore 29 days resignation
Joseph Barr Secretary of the Treasury Lyndon Johnson 31 days resignation at end of the president’s term
William Henry Harrison President William Henry Harrison 32 days death (typhoid)
John Tyler Vice President William Henry Harrison 33 days became president
Robert C. Wood Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Lyndon Johnson 34 days end of the president’s term
Robert Bacon Secretary of State Theodore Roosevelt 38 days end of the president’s term
Lawrence Eagleburger Secretary of State George H.W. Bush 43 days end of the president’s term
Andrew Johnson Vice President Abraham Lincoln 43 days became president
Jonathan Daniels Press Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt 45 days left after FDR’s death
Edwin M. Stanton Attorney General James Buchanan 76 days resignation
Michael Dubke Communications Director Donald Trump 85 days resignation
Elliot Richardson Attorney General Richard Nixon 150 days resignation
Sean Spicer Communications Director/press secretary Donald Trump 183 days resignation
Reince Preibus Chief of Staff Donald Trump 189 days resignation

Featured image: Shutterstock

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