Retired general John Kelly, a man who has defined his entire life’s work on service to the United States as a former Marine general and secretary of Homeland Security, is now in a position that even four decades in the US military may not have prepared him for. Not in this White House, with Donald Trump as commander-in-chief.
Being a White House chief of staff can be and often is a thankless job. This person has to manage the paper flow that goes into the Oval Office, be on top of the president’s legislative agenda, keep the boss happy, and be everything and anything that the president wants him or her to be. If the chief can leave the White House after a twelve-hour day, it’s considered going home early.
Kelly needs to do all of this and more. And “the more” involves everything from ensuring that competing staffers don’t embarrass the administration in the press to dealing with the kinds of Type-A, machismo personalities that can make any workplace unbearable. In the little over two weeks that Kelly has been the top staffer, he’s tried to get everybody on board with the new program. The $64,000 question is whether a life-long Marine who values discipline and results can instill those qualities within the rank-and-file.
Here are four major challenges that Kelly must confront, preferably sooner rather than later.
Kelly isn’t somebody who likes drama or palace intrigue. Generals and admirals surely have their personality differences like everybody else, but Kelly genuinely appears to be a man who wants to implement as much of president Trump’s agenda as possible without going through the typical staff infighting. Unfortunately, Kelly’s got his work cut out for him; the Trump White House is nothing but drama and staff infighting. Indeed, president Trump’s modus-operandi during his five decades in business and six months as president is pitting staff against one another, perhaps thinking that natural selection will eliminate bad ideas and bring good concepts to the top of the pile.
Every White House, of course, has had a degree of competition among agencies, departments, and individual staffers—think George Schultz vs. Casper Weinberger, Colin Powell vs. Donald Rumsfeld, and Stanley McChrystal vs. Obama’s political staff. None of these prior instances, however, have reached the level of intensity and invective so early in a president’s tenure as the feud between Steve Bannon’s nationalists and H.R. McMaster’s internationalists.
McMaster’s decision to consolidate his authority over the National Security Council by firing several aides close to or aligned with the nationalist camp has produced a backlash from the right-wing media that continues to this day. Indeed, there appears to be a concerted attempt by some outside of the White House (and perhaps inside of it) to drive McMaster further away from Trump’s orbit. Scurrilous and unverified rumors of his drinking habits, his policy disagreements, and his impatient demeanor during NSC meetings have been leaked to the press by officials hiding behind a wall of anonymity. The hashtag #FireMcMaster caught heat on Twitter last week with Bannon sympathizers, showing just how powerful Trump’s base of supporters continues to be and how unhappy they are with a national security adviser who they believe is subverting the president’s foreign policy and steering it in a more establishment direction.
Where Kelly stands on the McMaster vs. Bannon dispute is not completely known. There’s so much information and so many leaks coming from so many anonymous sources to so many publications that it’s tough to discern reality from mythology. However, Kelly will need to find an amicable solution for both men who have big egos, most realistically through a truce—if a truce is even possible between these two guys. The alternative is allowing the backstabbing to run its course without a guarantee that it will end at some point in the future—a dangerous proposition that could ruin Kelly’s mission to streamline White House operations and to tame the bureaucratic and personality turf wars.
This is an extension of the first point, but just as important as cooling the McMaster and Bannon feud. To put it bluntly, Kelly has to introduce some law and order among staffers of all ideologies and political persuasions who work under the White House’s roof. That may involve terminations, reprimands, reassignments, or demotions, but it must be something—anything—beyond the status-quo ante of the administration’s first six months.
Kelly understands that this will be a very difficult assignment to tackle, but he also understands that he must tackle it early and often. According to Time magazine’s cover story on the former marine general, Kelly assembled two-hundred West Wing staffers during his first day on the job and effectively told them to stop looking after themselves to the detriment of the country and the president. The new motto: “Country, President, Self” is a good mantra to live by and a reform that this White House desperately needs. That means cutting down on the anonymous leaks to the press, getting rid of those who refuse to live by the creed, and quite frankly scaring people straight—anybody wiling to speak ill of their colleagues or of the president to a reporter on or off the record will soon be searching for another job in Washington.
White House drama won’t be eliminated entirely of course. President Trump has a talent for dominating the news cycle every hour of every day of the week and saying things—like threatening to unleash hell fire on North Korea and hinting that the 82nd Airborne could be deployed to Venezuela—that cause quite a bit of consternation and alarm among the political and foreign policy establishments. If Trump’s Twitter account was taken away or policed more thoroughly, Kelly’s job would be a whole lot easier. Unfortunately, just as staffers failed to talk Trump out of using social media during the presidential campaign, the likelihood of Kelly being able to restrain Trump on Twitter is about as likely as Democrats supporting the administration’s repeal and replacement of Obamacare. But if there is anybody in Washington who can at least bring the troops into the line, it is John Kelly.
The Trump administration’s legislative successes are few and far between. Republicans failed twice to repeal Obamacare and replace it with an alternative. Trump’s calls for a border wall are going absolutely nowhere, opposed by a good portion of congressional Republicans who represent states and districts along the US-Mexico border. His attempt to increase the defense budget by an additional $50 billion won’t happen unless Republicans are wiling to work with Democrats and increase non-defense spending as well, which the White House of course doesn’t want to do. And Trump’s lashing out at Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell last week isn’t exactly a good legislative strategy if he wants to get any of his other priorities through Congress.
That’s where the chief of staff comes in. Kelly has experience on Capitol Hill and a great deal of credibility among members of both parties, and he’ll need to use all of it in order to convince Congress that the president has the same priorities in his mind as those on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. With the exception of perhaps tax reform and infrastructure, this message won’t get anywhere with congressional Democrats. But lord knows that Kelly is trying; even before he was sworn in, Kelly phoned Democrats on the Hill to introduce himself and begin the process of building some political capital ahead of what will be a time-compressed session in the fall. With issues over McConnell still hovering, he may need to do something similar with the Senate majority leader—because without Republican support, Trump is looking at a first year in office with no legislative accomplishments to show for it.
Every time President Trump opens his mouth during a press conference, a stakeout, an interview, or a signing ceremony, he creates problems for himself, his administration, the Republican Party, and for the country. That was on full display during Trump’s impromptu press conference at Trump Tower this Tuesday, when his attempt to explain away his delay in denouncing white supremacists in Charlottesville turned into a quasi-attack of those who were threatened and beaten by neo-Nazis. It’s hard to underestimate just how much of a public relations fiasco Trump’s remarks were, and yet they are exactly the kinds of remarks that White House staffers—and above all the chief of staff – have grown accustomed to hearing and dealing with ever since he was inaugurated.
By the look on Kelly’s face during that press conference he quickly discovered that defending, coaching, and managing an unmanageable president who is incapable of staying on any kind of a script is even more stressful than leading US soldiers in battle or overseeing an entire theater of the world.
Trump didn’t provide his new chief of staff a lot of time before throwing a national political crisis on his plate, but that won’t stop the entire political establishment from watching Kelly like a hawk, pontificating about how deftly he will handle the latest train wreck. Perhaps it will entail Kelly having an uncomfortable sit down with Trump in the Oval Office and setting an ultimatum—that he better shape up or that Kelly will walk away entirely. It could involve Kelly getting on his hands and knees, begging a 70-year old man to change his stripes. Or it may mean cutting back on public appearances in order to diminish the number of opportunities Trump has to put his foot in his mouth.
Whatever it is, John Kelly either needs to find the magical, currently nonexistent medicine that will at least treat Trump’s illness, or realize that most of his time will be devoted to being the West Wing’s most senior crisis manager. It’s still an open question whether Kelly, a man of the utmost character who has fought in service of his country over four decades, is willing to use his own honor to shield President Trump.