US transport, education secretaries quit after Capitol violence

Madam Elaine Chao said her resignation would take effect on Jan 11.
Madam Elaine Chao said her resignation would take effect on Jan 11.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned on Thursday (Jan 7), joining a list of officials quitting President Donald Trump’s administration in protest at the storming of the US Capitol by his supporters.

Ms Chao, the wife of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, said in an email to staff that 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. 

In a letter to Trump, Ms DeVos said the attack on the Capitol was unconscionable.

"There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me," she wrote, adding here resignation would be effective Friday. 

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ms DeVos’s resignation.

With less than two weeks left of Mr Trump’s presidency, many aides were already heading for the door, but the sudden exodus suggested revulsion among some over his encouragement of supporters who brought chaos to the Capitol on Wednesday in an ultimately futile bid to prevent formal certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory. 

Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, a leading aide on Mr Trump’s China policy, quit abruptly on Wednesday, said a senior administration official. 

He was followed on Thursday by at least five senior directors at the White House National Security Council responsible for advising Mr Trump on Russia, the Middle East, Africa, defence policy and weapons of mass destruction, according to a senior administration official and a person familiar with the matter. 

Mr Tyler Goodspeed, acting chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also stepped down, a source familiar with the situation said. 

The Republican Trump’s pledge on Thursday of an "orderly transition" on Jan 20 was partly intended to head off further resignations, but the second official told Reuters: "It’s not going to stop it."

The images at the Capitol filled television screens worldwide, forever marking Mr Trump’s presidency. 

Ms Chao, a labour secretary and deputy transportation secretary under previous Republican presidents, has led the department for four years.

In an interview with Reuters on Dec 31, Ms Chao said she planned to remain through Jan 20. 

On Thursday, she said "we will help my announced successor, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with taking on the responsibility of running this wonderful department."

Ms Chao made the announcement a day after Mr McConnell condemned the violence and the effort by some Republican lawmakers to block certification of Mr Biden’s victory.

Mr Trump has sought unsuccessfully to overturn the results with unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. 

Mr Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff, resigned as special envoy to Northern Ireland, telling CNBC: "I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of my friends resign over the course of the next 24 to 48 hours."

Mr John Costello, deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, announced his departure in a blistering tweet, writing, "yesterday’s events were an unprecedented attack on the very core of our democracy – incited by a sitting president."

Further departures were likely at the NSC, one of the officials said. It coordinates foreign policy and maintains contacts with other governments, so loss of key staff could raise questions about national security as the new administration takes over. 

Mr Pottinger’s boss, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, had no plans to quit, the first official said. But sources familiar with the matter said Mr O’Brien considered resigning. 

"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 Mr Biden’s inauguration. 

The White House had no comment. 

Shortly after Mr Trump appeared to finally acknowledge that Mr Biden would take office, the White House asked its more than 4,000 political appointees to submit letters of resignation by Jan 20. 

A White House official called it part of the normal transition process, but such a request usually goes out weeks before a transfer of power and was apparently held up by Mr Trump’s refusal to concede defeat.  \

Mr Trump has increasingly isolated himself, relying on a small group of diehard loyalists and lashing out at those who dare to cross him. 

An administration official said "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 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a close Mr Trump ally, will resign.

But he put daylight between himself and Mr Trump by condemning the mob that overran the Capitol as "criminals". 

Mr Trump’s top Cabinet secretaries – Mr Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller and Acting Attorney-General Jeffrey Rosen – were not expected to quit, but lower-profile Cabinet members could still leave, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

Former US diplomats said it was unlikely there would be major departures at the State Department, where staffers have long endured Mr Trump’s accusations they are part of a "deep state" seeking to frustrate his policies. 

But a State Department adviser on Iran, Mr Gabriel Noronha, was fired after tweeting that Mr  Trump was "entirely unfit to remain in office."

First lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff, Ms Stephanie Grisham, also resigned on Wednesday.

Two sources told Reuters that White House social secretary Rickie Niceta also quit, as did Ms Sarah Matthews, a deputy White House press secretary. 

Mr Pottinger, a former Reuters and Wall Street Journal reporter who left journalism to join the US Marines after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, had served in the White House since Mr Trump took office. 

Mr Trump has pursued hardline policies towards China on issues ranging from trade to espionage and the coronavirus, with relations at their worst level in decades.