In the hours after a mob of angry Donald Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, a number of prominent Trump administration officials and Republicans decided that they’d had enough.
With a mix of anger and outrage, they condemned Trump for either stoking the riots or doing next-to-nothing to stop them. Cabinet officials submitted letters of resignation. Golf buddies and top donors broke their alliances. Top advisers said they’d been let down by Trump.
It was a notable moment of public dissent after four years marked mostly by fidelity. But its impact has proved minimal.
One year after the Jan. 6 riot, the voices of those who broke with Trump over that day have mostly been muted, moved on, or, in certain instances, come to embrace Trump all over again. POLITICO contacted eighteen Trump administration officials who stepped down as a result of Jan. 6 or whose resignation seemed timed to it. Only one agreed to speak on the record about their decision that day.
“I think it’s about survival,” said Stephanie Grisham, who resigned on Jan. 6 as chief of staff to first lady Melania Trump and recently published a book that criticized the president’s and first lady’s handling of the riots. “If you stand up then you’re going to be out there alone.”
Twelve months ago, the outgoing president’s political future appeared to be in serious jeopardy. Not only had he lost his reelection bid, but his post-election conduct — including the peddling of baseless lies about the integrity of Joe Biden’s victory— and his encouragement of a D.C. gathering timed with Congress’ certification of the vote, had created the kindling that led to the riots.
When those rioters stormed the capitol and Trump offered only a milquetoast response, the condemnation was swift.
On the House floor that day, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Trump “bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters” and advised Congress to censure the president. “Count me out,” said Trump’s closest confidante in the Senate and favorite golf partner, Sen. Lindsay Graham. “Enough is enough.”
Former attorney general William Barr called Trump’s behavior “a betrayal of his office and supporters.” Republicans in Congress encouraged articles of impeachment brought against the president. Twitter and Facebook suspended Trump.
Some TV talking heads speculated that Trump might fade away into a retired life of buffets and golf at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. It appeared, at least for a moment, that Trump could become persona non grata in national politics.
Yet over the course of the past year, Trump’s grip on the party hasn’t diminished. Instead, in critical ways, it remains firm.
Trump holds court in Palm Beach where a steady stream of Republican candidates and operatives travel to gain his approval and, they hope, endorsement. Lawmakers still answer phone calls from the former president and some, like McCarthy and Graham, have flocked to his compound for a meeting and to pose for a photo, too. Trump has held MAGA rallies, does interviews with conservative media, and went on tour with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. His 2021 Christmas picture book sold thousands of copies. It is considered a fait accompli in certain corners that Trump won’t just run again for office but that he will easily become the Republican Party’s nominee.
“You’ve got two camps right now of people who should speak out and haven’t. The first camp knows Trump is a dangerous and vindictive man but doesn’t want to upend their lives by provoking his ire. The second camp is more nakedly transactional,” said Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration who was revealed to be the author of “Anonymous,” an anti-Trump tell-all. “They see that the GOP is still drunk on the MAGA Kool Aid, and they don’t want to get left behind.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
As Trump has sought to reclaim his throne, those who resigned in protest have scampered from public view — rarely, if ever, talking about that day. David Shulkin, who was fired by tweet by Trump as the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said he was not surprised. “We have seen countless times of people who have spoken out” against the former president have “paid the price with personal attacks against them,” he noted. He said his philosophy was to speak out against Trump only on matters of substance.
But even the substantive criticisms have been muted. Instead, some Jan. 6 defectors have come to dispute the idea that they ever resigned in protest at all, while others seem content to simply concede that their former boss remains the de facto ringleader of their party. Most, mainly, have resorted to silence.
Here are their stories.
In the aftermath of the riots, then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was the first cabinet official to resign. In a two-page letter addressed to Trump, she detailed her department’s work and ended by noting—in just two sentences—her plans to depart the Monday after Jan. 6. In a message to Transportation Department colleagues on Twitter, she was more direct with her reason for resigning, calling Jan. 6 “traumatic and entirely avoidable” and saying it “deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
Since then, Chao has not publicly spoken out against Trump or the falsehoods he pushed surrounding the 2020 election, even as she and her husband—Trump foe and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell — continue to be targeted by the ex-president. Indeed, out of office, Trump has sought to rip McConnell from his own leadership perch, pursuing an extremely long-shot effort to strip the Kentucky Republican of his leadership position.
Chao, meanwhile, currently serves on the board of directors for the Kroger Corporation and on the board of trustees for the Reagan Foundation and Institute. Her official biography on her website notes she was appointed to two Presidential cabinet positions and features a photo with former President George W. Bush, but does not mention Trump by name. Chao declined to comment.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos submitted her letter of resignation the day after the Jan. 6 riots and wrote to Trump, “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me.”
“Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us. I believe we each have a moral obligation to exercise good judgment and model the behavior we hope they would emulate,” DeVos wrote. “They must know from us that America is greater than what transpired yesterday.”
Since leaving Washington, DeVos has been rumored to be considering a run for governor in her home state of Michigan but denied any plans to enter the race. This summer, at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, she offered veiled criticism of Trump, according to the Detroit Free Press. “Principles have been overtaken by personalities” in the GOP, DeVos said. “Ours is not a movement dependent on any one person.”
After leaving office, DeVos personally donated to just three GOP congressional candidates. One of the three was Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who was one of the over 100 Republican representatives who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election. DeVos declined to comment.
After serving as Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney accepted the role of U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland. But following the Jan. 6 riots he announced during a live interview on CNBC he was stepping down. “I called [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo last night to let him know I was resigning from that. I can’t do it. I can’t stay,” Mulvaney told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Mulvaney said Trump was “not the same as he was eight months ago.”
“The folks who spent time away from our families, put our careers on the line to go work for Donald Trump, and we did have those successes to look back at, but now it will always be, ‘Oh yeah, you work for the guy who tried to overtake the government,’” Mulvaney said. “That legacy is gone as of yesterday and that’s extraordinarily disappointing to those of us who work for him.”
According to a person familiar with their relationship, Mulvaney is on cordial terms now with Trump, but not in regular communication with him. When they do talk, it is about family and golf, not politics or January 6. Mulvaney continues to appear on TV and radio to discuss the economy and politics. He put his hedge fund on hold to be primary caregiver to his father, who died of cancer late last year. He is a senior fellow at the University of Sydney in Australia and has been doing some consulting with a few former colleagues from the Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Mulvaney declined to comment.
Deputy national security adviser to Trump, Matt Pottinger, resigned on the afternoon of Jan. 6 as the riots unfolded on Capitol Hill. Pottinger took a lead role in orchestrating the administration’s early response to Covid-19 pandemic and spearheaded the administration’s China portfolio.
Pottinger is now a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution and since leaving the White House has written op-eds and done interviews on U.S.-China relations. Pottinger declined an interview request.
Grisham herself has not decided whether or not she will re-enter life in politics – or even if she will find a place for herself back in Washington political circles. After writing a book about her experience serving in the Trump White House, Grisham has spent time with family in Kansas figuring out what is next.
Other top Trump administration officials – who were rumored to find themselves alienated by the party – have now settled into jobs on Capitol Hill, K Street, Trump-aligned organizations, conservative groups, and even secured corporate board seats.
“Looking back, Donald Trump and our administration was the story of ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes.’ Everyone around him told him what he wanted to hear all the time, true or not and they’re still doing it today,” Grisham said. “A lot of it is about honest to goodness survival. But there is power in numbers and if people could stand together…we could get back on track.”
THE OTHER OFFICIALS
Other officials who resigned over Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 included one of Trump’s top economic advisers, Tyler Goodspeed; deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews; White House social secretary Rickie Niceta; and John Costello, a deputy assistant secretary of Commerce who now serves in the Biden administration. Goodspeed and Matthews did not respond to a request to comment. Niceta and Costello declined to comment.
Elinore McCance-Katz, who was assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for mental health and substance use; Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division; Ryan Tully, senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council; and FAA officials Arjun Garg, Brianna Manzelli, Kirk Shaffer, Bailey Edwards and Andrew Giacini also all resigned in the aftermath of Jan. 6. Garg, Manzelli and Giacini declined to comment, while McCance-Katz, Dreiband, Tully, Shaffer and Edwards didn’t respond to a request for comment.