Let’s start an office pool. Any takers on how long John Kelly lasts?
America abounds with thankless disgusting jobs – pest controller, slaughterhouse worker, septic tank excavator – but surely none are worse than chief of staff to Donald Trump. The problem that confronts Kelly could easily have been written by Joseph Heller, because it’s a classic Catch-22:
If the ex-Marine toadies to Trump and abets the so-called president’s characteristic chaos, he won’t be doing the job; but if he stands up to Trump when necessary and earns public praise for purging the White House snake pit, Trump will probably dump him from the job.
Kelly put in 42 years of active duty and helmed the U.S. Southern Command, but he ain’t seen nothing yet. Guarding the nation from outside enemies wasn’t necessarily the best preparation for dealing with an unhinged adolescent – essentially, the enemy within.
Some observers think Kelly will flex strength. But getting rid of The Mooch (July 21, 2017 – July 31, 2017) was the easy part; even Trump appeared to realize that he couldn’t afford to be amplified by a Mini-Me. But now comes the hard part. Yes, Kelly can limit access to the Oval Office – but can he cure Trump’s itchy Twitter finger? Will he be at Trump’s side at six in the morning to stop Trump from thumbing trash about his ostensible Republican allies? Will Kelly truly have the clout to block Ivanka and feckless Jared when they seek to sally forth into daddy’s domain? On all counts, doubtful.
It won’t be easy to install command-and-control for a boss who can’t even govern his own squalid impulses, much less a country. There’s no way to put lipstick on this pig.
As Gabriel Schonfield, a former senior advisor to 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, said yesterday, “No matter who is serving as chief of staff, the weak, ignorant, sadistic, shallow, morally empty man who occupies the most prominent position in the world will not succeed as president.”
Trump is drawn to military men because he thinks they’re as tough as he fancies himself to be, but let’s see what happens if Kelly tries to get tough with Trump and enforce a little discipline. Trump just wants to be Trump, so don’t be shocked if at some foreseeable juncture he subjects Kelly to the same humiliations that killed off Reince Priebus.
Kelly has sent mixed signals about how he might approach this thankless job. On the one hand, when he was nominated for his previous post, Homeland Security chief, he told a Senate committee, “I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations.” On the other hand, he told a House committee, “I work for one man. His name is Donald Trump.” Problem is, working for Trump is different than working for truth.
We got a taste of that in March, when Kelly was asked on CNN about Trump’s lying allegation that President Obama had wiretapped him during the ’16 campaign. Kelly replied: “If the president of the United States said that, he’s got no reasons to say it. He must have some coonvincing evidence.” Trump had no evidence – aside from whatever he heard in his tooth fillings – but Kelly’s first impulse was to salute.
If the new chief of staff spends his time saluting, he’ll be powerless to clean up the chaos that most Americans have come to detest. In a new national poll, 60 percent of Americans (including 65 percent of independents) say the White House is being run “somewhat” or “very” chaotically. That’s an amazing stat, because most people typically ignore White House staff flaps, dismissing them as inside-Washington trivia.
And even if Kelly cures the chaos, he can’t stop the Russia probes that are spreading their tentacles around Trump and his princelings – probes that keep getting fresh boosts from Trump, who has no clue how to conduct himself while he’s under criminal investigation. Indeed, Kelly could wind up as hapless as Trump’s lawyers. As one presidential adviser told The Washington Post, “He refuses to sit still. He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views (the Trump-Russia scandal) as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.”
The bottom line is, Kelly’s best efforts as chief of staff might be too late; our foreign allies have already taken Trump’s weak measure – as have our foreign enemies. For the big picture, I’ll close today by ceding the floor to Steve Schmidt, the longtime Republican strategist:
“What do you think the advisers to the Canadian prime minister, the British prime minister, the German chancellor, the Australian prime minister – what do you think they think when they read (about White House chaos)? The great danger of this chaos is, for the first time since World War II, the president of the United States utterly and absolutely lacks the moral authority to lead the western alliance, should it be necessary, militarily. Because (our allies) cannot trust the credibility of this president, this administration, to commit their troops under American command. And that chaos brings the predator nations to life, against our interests all over the world. It makes the world more dangerous…
“The snake pit, the leaking, the lack of probity, the lack of rectitude by these people who constantly, constantly, have stood up at the podium, with the White House seal on it, have serially lied to the American people – and it is not good for America.”
Good luck to John Kelly, cleaning it up.
With an assist from my summer researcher, Domenic Scatiato.