Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation speaks at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2019 (GES 2019) in The Hague, Netherlands June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

By David Shepardson, Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a Syosset High School graduate, announced her resignation on Thursday, the first Cabinet member to join a list of officials of President Donald Trump’s administration who are leaving in protest at the storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.

Chao, the wife of Republican Senate Majority 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.

With less than 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 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 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.

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.”

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.”

Chao made the announcement a day after McConnell condemned the violence and the effort by some Republican lawmakers to block certification of Biden’s victory. Trump has sought unsuccessfully to overturn the results with unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

Among those spurred to quit was Mick Mulvaney, a former White House chief of staff who resigned 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.

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 are especially likely at the NSC, one of the officials said. It coordinates U.S. foreign policy 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 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 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.

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, 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.

But a State Department adviser on Iran, Gabriel Noronha, was fired from his post by the White House on Thursday after tweeting that Trump was “entirely unfit to remain in office.”

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.

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

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