USA Politics

General Kelly offers Trump a semblance of order – if the president lets him

Values & ideals

An early sign of Kelly’s clout came with the news Monday that Trump’s new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, has been removed after a tumultuous 10 days in the role.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with John Kelly after he was sworn in as White House Chief of Staff in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 31, 2017.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters
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“Send in the Marines!” the refrain goes. With the appointment of retired four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly as his new chief of staff, President Trump has done just that.

General Kelly, until Monday the secretary of Homeland Security, brings a no-nonsense approach to leadership, loyalty to both commander and troops, and Mr. Trump’s respect. He offers Mr. Trump a semblance of order in a White House rife with palace intrigue – if Trump lets him. For Kelly to succeed, the president needs to empower him, political analysts say.

“My gut is Kelly will have some influence on him, and may even be able to bring a modicum of discipline,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia and an experienced Washington hand.

An early sign of Kelly’s clout came with the news Monday that Trump’s new White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, has been removed after a tumultuous 10 days in the role, during which he went on a profane tirade against other senior White House officials. Mr. Scaramucci’s departure came at Kelly’s request, according to multiple news outlets.

In addition, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that all West Wing staff will report to Kelly - another sign that he has a mandate to impose order.

But while Kelly’s appointment represents an opportunity for Trump’s presidency to reboot, it may be complicated by larger issues, including the increasing distance between Trump and the Republican Party. The fact that Trump sacked former GOP Chair Reince Priebus as chief of staff just before appointing Kelly may signal “an open break with the Congressional GOP and the party at large,” writes presidential historian David Pietrusza in an email.

“One thing a general like John Kelly knows is this: fighting a war on two fronts can be fatal,” says Mr. Pietrusza. “I'm not sure if he or anyone else can fight a war on three fronts: against the Democrats, against the Republicans, and the tinderbox that is the Trump White House.”

Vacuum of effective GOP leadership

After six months, Trump still lacks a major legislative victory in a Congress controlled by his own party, following three failed attempts last week to pass health-care reform in the Senate.

White House disarray and the fact that the president is not steeped in policy or political negotiation contributed to the failure, but another factor is also at play: a Republican Party beset by internal divisions.

Trump’s rise to power, which brought a more populist element into the GOP, has complicated the party’s effort to govern, at least in the legislative branch, Mr. Davis says. Most members live in “safe” districts, and fear activist voters – who can cause them to be defeated in a primary – more than party leaders in Washington.

Enter Kelly, suddenly one of the most powerful players in Washington. The chief of staff’s job is to control access to the president, manage the information flow, and work with Congress and executive-branch agencies to enact the president’s agenda.

But “the No. 1 responsibility for the chief is to be able to go in, close the door, and tell the president in no uncertain terms what he doesn’t want to hear,” says Chris Whipple, author of the new book “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”

“We’ll see about Kelly. If he can’t do that, and Trump isn’t willing to listen to advice like that, then this White House is finished.”

Most important word: staff, not chief

The most effective chiefs of staff have brought a specific skill set to the task, and perhaps most fundamentally, the president’s respect and trust.

Mr. Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff for his first six months in office, brought a knowledge of politics, having served as chairman of the Republican National Committee for six years, but not of policymaking. As an avatar of the Republican establishment, against whom Trump fought his way to the presidency, Priebus came into the West Wing with a major strike against him. His age, a generation younger than Trump, and mild manner also didn’t help.

In Kelly, Trump gets someone nearly his age, and with a professional profile the president clearly admires: a top-ranked military man. But Kelly does not have a background in politics or policymaking.

If it weren't for the new staff structure announced by Ms. Sanders, with White House officials reporting to Kelly, then his task would have been “almost mission impossible,” says Mr. Whipple, who interviewed all 17 living former chiefs of staff for his book.

Whipple cites James Baker (for President Reagan) and Leon Panetta (for President Clinton) – “an iron fist inside a velvet glove” – as top-tier examples of White House chiefs.

“The most important word in the title is staff, not chief,” says Whipple. “You can’t just order people around. You can’t just strap people up to a lie detector test in order to intimidate leakers. You have to be a diplomat, you have to have tremendous people skills.”

Generals rare – but helpful to national security

Trump may find it helpful to have a general at his side, in addition to his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, tweeted as much on Sunday.

“Job # 1 for new WH COS Kelly: help Nat'l Security Advisor McMaster put more discipline into interagency policy process, esp on North Korea,” Mr. McLaughlin wrote.

Still, few military generals have served as White House chief of staff. The most recent, Alexander Haig, was President Nixon’s final chief, and helped ease the embattled president out of office at the height of Watergate. But Mr. Haig lasted just over a month under President Ford, whose decentralized structure quickly proved unworkable.

Former CEOs and governors have also struggled as White House chiefs of staff – top examples being Don Regan (under Reagan) and John Sununu (under President George H. W. Bush). Kelly may also face the same challenge in subsuming any “alpha dog” tendencies.

But some Trump supporters are cautiously hopeful.

“Like Fortinbras brashly entering to take charge of affairs in the final scene of Hamlet, General Kelly may be able to introduce discipline, order, and a chain of command. A touch of Parris Island in a chaotic West Wing,” writes Pat Buchanan, seen as a godfather of Trumpism. “My concern is that the general may not understand or agree with the populist, nationalist, anti-interventionist, America-First issues and ideas that put Trump into the White House and animate the coalition that sustains him.”