The Chaos President And The Myth Of The John Kelly Reset
Trump’s Chief of Staff has desperately tried to right a ship whose captain is as unpredictable as the tides
After Donald Trump’s first 246 days in office, many of his critics wouldn’t hesitate to characterize his administration as an unmitigated disaster.
The early exit of national security adviser Michael Flynn in February, Anthony Scaramucci’s 10-day, expletive-filled tenure as communications director, and a myriad of other firings, resignations, and public infighting paint a Hobbesian portrait of the West Wing befitting Trump’s volatile management style.
For many of Trump’s staffers, especially those who garner significant media attention of their own, careers in the White House are nasty, brutish, and short.
So far, the exception that proves the rule has been Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly. A retired Marine General and the President’s first secretary of homeland security, he earned Trump’s trust early and was tasked with implementing order in the White House.
Though Kelly has been somewhat effective at reigning in a staff that is plagued by infighting, rivalries, and leaks, one obstacle remains just as unsolvable as ever: the President is Donald Trump.
Over Trump’s first five months in office, six high level officials were fired or resigned — Attorney General Sally Yates, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, FBI Director James Comey, Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, and Communications Director Michael Dubke.
The turnover rate at the White House picked up over the next few months, with the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, stepping down in early July, citing frustration with an extremely opaque administration that frequently refused to provide even the bare minimum of transparency required by law.
Eventually, the critical mass of resignations shifted closer to the President himself, with Communications Director and Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepping down on July 21st. Spicer’s resignation was followed by the departure of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus a week later, and then the explosive exit of his replacement as Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci. (Scaramucci was never officially sworn in.)
An article in The Washington Post by Callum Borchers observed that over Trump’s first six months in office, four men served as communications director in five consecutive stints, lasting an average of only 44 days each. So far, Hope Hicks appears to be the exception to this rule after taking over as acting Communications Director following Scaramucci’s implosion and officially assuming the job on September 12.
NPR’s Tamara Keith described Hicks as a “Trump team survivor,” and ABC’s Ali Vitali named her one of “the White House women who’ve got Trump’s back,” along with advisor Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who replaced Spicer as Press Secretary in July.
Sanders has proven especially adept at disarming the normally hostile White House press corps. After a ten day stretch during which Priebus was fired, Spicer resigned, and Scaramucci was fired, Sanders joked during a briefing that, “if you want to see chaos, come to my house with three preschoolers. This doesn’t hold a candle to that.”
In 2015, Jeb Bush labeled Trump a “chaos candidate,” and predicted that, if elected, “he’d be a chaos president.” When Bush’s brother was President, his first Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, served for 1,910 days.
Trump’s first Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, only lasted 192 days before he was labeled a “paranoid schizophrenic,” by his subordinate, Scaramucci, and unceremoniously fired by Trump over Twitter. Only two White House Chiefs of Staff have logged shorter tenures than Priebus since the position was created in 1946 by President Truman.
George H.W. Bush’s final Chief of Staff, James Baker, served for only 150 days — though he previously served for over four years as Reagan’s first Chief of Staff. President Obama’s second Chief of Staff, Pete Rouse, only served for 104 days as an interim replacement for Rahm Emmanuel, who left the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago.
Priebus didn’t seem to mind being pushed from the White House, calling the Atlantic’s Molly Ball from a golf course afterward to boast, declaring, “we won.” Seemingly unfazed by his public embarrassment, he remarked, “winning is what we were supposed to do, and we won. That’s the job of the Republican Party. It’s in the best shape it’s been in since 1928.”
Priebus appeared ignorant of, or at least indifferent to, the implications of his assertion considering that the last time Republicans had this much power, it resulted in the Great Depression. In her article, Ball described Priebus’ career as symbolic of larger forces, writing:
“It has been a long, strange trip for Priebus, who came to Washington as GOP chairman in 2011 on a promise to reform a party in disarray. His story, in a way, is the story of the Republican Party itself: His initial wariness of Trump gave way to capitulation and then enabling. He swallowed his private qualms for the sake of the team, until his turn to be the victim of Trump’s pageant of dominance finally came — publicly disgraced, dismissed in a tweet.”
The skit was the capstone of a tireless campaign by Spicer to rehabilitate his public image, and he followed it up with a half-assed mea culpa, admitting to The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and Dave Itzkoff that he now regrets attacking the news media in his first appearance as Press Secretary.
Like much of the motley crew that got Trump elected and subsequently spilled over into his administration, the President’s former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon hasn’t wasted any time pursuing his post-White House agenda since departing the administration last month.
Back in his element at Breitbart, Bannon is reportedly shifting his focus to Congress, with the goal of replacing incumbents who don’t support his stringent nationalist agenda. At the moment, his sights are set on Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat when he was appointed Attorney General.
Strange is running to earn his seat and is endorsed by both Majority leader McConnell and President Trump. Bannon, however, has put the Breitbart machine to work in support of the more nationalist, anti-establishment candidate, Judge Roy Moore. At the direction of Bannon, Breitbart’s Washington editor, Matthew Boyle, told his staff several days ago, “the only story that matters until next week is Alabama.”
The John Kelly Era
While his betrayed loyalists re-adjust to civilian life, Trump’s new Chief of Staff, John Kelly, has taken on the task of reorganizing the chaotic flurry of staff and information that flowed through the White House uncontrolled before he took over as gatekeeper to the most powerful man in the world.
Kelly has a unique relationship with Trump, who holds him in high regard thanks to his service as a Marine General, commander of U.S. Southern Command, and Secretary of Homeland Security. The two have reportedly “enjoyed a mostly easy rapport,” according to the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman.
After taking over, Kelly quickly began wrangling wayward west wing staff, setting the tone for his tenure by firing Anthony Scaramucci and spending several weeks implementing comprehensive systems designed to control the flow of information to Trump.
According to Haberman’s White House sources, “staff members discovered early on that they could defy Mr. Priebus, the officials said, but crossing a Marine is a different matter.”
Kelly has even managed to earn a level of mutual respect with the President’s inner circle of family advisors, with Ivanka Trump conceding him the rights to vet her meetings and limit access to her father. Ms. Trump has been famous for inserting herself into crucial diplomatic settings, such as when she casually took her father’s seat at the G20 meeting.
Whether Ms. Trump’s forays into foreign policy are appropriate or not, at the very least they now have to go through John Kelly, who some less satisfied staff have described as a “choke point” that “stifles the creativity and spontaneity that have been hallmarks of Trump’s enterprises.”
The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker described Kelly as, “an apolitical force in a White House divided by ideology.” Apolitical, in this context, also means unquestionably loyal to Donald Trump. Kelly’s tenure at the Department of Homeland Security indicates that he has a long history of appeasing Trump’s authoritarian whims — an opportunistic strategy that appears to have paid off.
Shortly after he was hired, the New York Times reported, “Mr. Kelly, 67, has told his new employees that he was hired to manage the staff, not the president.” Kelly appears to approach his new job with Epictetus’ millennia-old advice to, “make the best of what lies within our power, and deal with everything else as it comes” in mind.
Kelly’s strategy of letting Trump be Trump was highlighted by the President’s remarks condoning white supremacy and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, his promise to bring “fire and fury,” down on North Korea if they cross his red line, and his address to the U.N. general assembly where he labeled Kim Jong-Un, “Rocket Man.”
Of course, Kelly’s approach of appeasing Trump hasn’t prevented the President from occasionally coming into conflict with his new chief of staff. Barely a month after he was hired, a report emerged that Kelly bore the brunt of a particularly “ornery” Trump’s ire during a staff meeting. According to Thrush and Haberman’s sources, after being berated by the President:
“[Mr. Kelly] reacted calmly, but he later told other White House staff members that he had never been spoken to like that during 35 years of serving his country. In the future, he said, he would not abide such treatment, according to three people familiar with the exchange.”
Despite his mood swings, Trump mostly appears to appreciate the changes Kelly has made. As Thrush and Haberman wrote, “‘I now have time to think,’ a surprised Mr. Trump has told one of his senior aides repeatedly over the last few weeks.”
Kelly has now joined an elite club of White House insiders who enjoy leverage over Trump. Along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Economic Advisor Gary Cohn, Trump now needs Kelly more than Kelly needs him.
The result is that the Chief of Staff has become a canary in the coal mine for the overall health of the Trump Administration. Having acknowledged that the actions of the President are entirely outside of his control, and after demonstrating an extreme degree of patience (despite the occasional pained facial expression), the former Marine General has become symbolic of order at the White House.
It’s anyone’s guess what Kelly meant when he asserted that he “would not abide such treatment” again, but it’s been several weeks since he reportedly made the comment and he remains in his position. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Trump, an avid reader of the New York Times, read the story and realized it would be in his best interest not to further anger, Kelly.
Tapping Kelly as Chief of Staff appears to be a desperate attempt by Trump to achieve the now-impossible “pivot” that everyone assumed he’d attempt. Despite less than two months in charge of the west wing, Kelly has already taken measured to alter the flow of information that gets to Trump in an effort to limit the president’s chances of getting triggered by right-wing news. In fact, Kelly’s regime may even be partially responsible for Trump’s new sense of bipartisanship. Despite this, his statements, actions, and tweets remain as erratic as ever.
In the Kelly era, the Breitbart printouts that nationalist aides like Bannon and Miller used to regularly slip Trump are no longer freely flowing. Though Kelly may have succeeded at muting the Nazis, he failed to do so before Trump called them “very fine people.”
As long as New York Times headlines are littered with phrases like, “military discipline, controlling, and beacon of discipline,” and CNN continues to claim that, “Trump remains Trump but evidence of Kelly’s reign is emerging,” it appears unlikely the reality T.V. President will sacrifice his new leading man.
Of course, nobody can say for sure whether Trump realizes just how much he needs Kelly, whether there really is a red line Trump could step over that would cause Kelly to resign, and whether Trump would ever cross that line — intentionally or not. It’s also possible that though Trump might appreciate the relative improvements Kelly has brought to the experience of being President, he may also gradually grow tired of his newfound restraints and fire him or Kelly will grow tired of the chaos and quit.
Ultimately, if you believe Trump possesses the self control necessary not to push Kelly too far, you assume there’s at least some level on which he is self aware and makes rational, informed decisions. Otherwise, you take Trump at face value and realize there is no order to the chaos of his mind, and by extension his White House.
In case the evidence doesn’t paint a clear enough picture, nobody needs to look much further than Trump’s unhinged address to the UN General Assembly this week, during which he called Kim Jong-Un “Rocket Man,” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Before the address, Trump’s aides reportedly asked him not to attack Kim personally.
Additionally, on Friday night Trump hosted another one of his trademark unhinged campaign rallies in Alabama. Though the rally was originally intended to be in support of Sen. Luther Strange, the establishment GOP pick to fill Senator Jeff Sessions’ seat, Trump wasted no time going off the rails.
He began by reneging on his support for Luther, hedging his bets and claiming “I might have made a mistake. I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake,” in the event that Strange loses.
Trump went on to fling more personal attacks at Kim Jong-Un, promise that the wall along the Southern border is not only going to be built, it will be “see-through,” re-litigate the 2016 election, decry the media “hoax” of Russian hacking, and chastise NFL players who don’t stand for the national anthem.
For those 90 minutes, Trump was simply Trump, and evidence of Kelly’s reign was nowhere to be found.
Trump in Alabama says NFL owners should "get that son of a bitch off the field!" when a player kneels during anthem