Will Trump Give Kelly the Authority to Succeed?
The firing of Anthony Scaramucci is a good sign, as is the new White House chain of command.
“Somebody’s got to be in charge. Somebody’s got to be the go-to guy who can go to the Oval Office and deliver a very tough message to the president.” —Dick Cheney on the role of White House chief of staff
With last Friday’s appointment of retired General and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to the White House chief of staff position, followed quickly by the firing of Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci Monday afternoon, the Trump administration is undergoing yet another radical transformation. It may look like chaos, but the moves are signs that things are being brought under control.
While Republican operatives have lauded the latest shake-up of staff at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there is still a fundamental question about the way ahead for this beleaguered administration. Will Trump actually empower Kelly to take on the traditional role of a chief of staff or will he continue to facilitate an environment in the executive mansion that is more reminiscent of an episode of Game of Thrones? Kelly’s firing of Trump’s pal Scaramucci gives an indication, as does the fact that all personnel will now go through Kelly. That wasn’t the case with Reince Priebus, which handcuffed him from the beginning.
However, before examining Trump’s frenetic management style, it’s important to look at the three reasons why he chose John Kelly. They will not only provide some insight into Trump’s thought process but also some indicators about the future.
First, the president viewed Kelly’s performance at DHS to be top-notch, and more importantly, Kelly was incredibly loyal to Trump during the administration’s bungled executive order on immigration and travel restrictions in February. Trump has said on numerous occasions that he values the trait of loyalty above all others and he believes Kelly is a person he can trust.
Second, Kelly is a retired senior military officer and Trump loves generals, as evidenced by his selections of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor and retired four-star Gen. James Mattis to be secretary of defense. Trump believes a military officer can bring some badly needed order and discipline to the West Wing that was sorely missing under Priebus.
There is some precedence for his logic. Back in 1973, former Supreme Allied Commander Alexander Haig held the chief of staff position in the Nixon administration and was later credited by a former official for “holding the office together” during the final days of the Watergate crisis.
Third, Trump values Kelly’s former experiences in the nation’s capital. During his storied career, Kelly served at the Pentagon and worked closely with significant decision-makers from both parties. He served as a military assistant to both Leon Panetta and Robert Gates and was lauded by both men for his dedication to duty and ability to get things done. More importantly, Kelly was exposed to the contentious political atmosphere surrounding the DC Beltway and the challenges associated with implementing policy.
Which leads us back to the question of whether Trump is serious about enabling Kelly to thrive in his new position. While we believe Trump respects Kelly, we doubt Trump is going to change his leadership style. As a result the chaos surrounding this administration will continue to swirl.
As a septuagenarian former businessman, Trump is loath to change. He believes his business-executive, shoot-from-the-hip style, which has earned him billions of dollars and the presidency, is the template for success. But Trump’s predisposition toward listening to family members and longtime associates over professional staff makes it difficult for him to govern effectively.
In his insightful book, “The Gatekeepers: How The White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” Chris Whipple writes about the critical role that chiefs of staff have played since the middle of the 20th century. The major theme of the book is that a strong chief of staff is often the difference between a strong or weak presidency. Whipple writes that a chief can make or break an administration and that each president reveals himself by the choice he selects.
Regarding Kelly, Whipple now says Scaramucci’s dismissal is “a signal that everybody needs to come through [Kelly] — that there needs to be discipline.” He added, “To do it on Day One is a good first step, but it’s a minimal first step. Ultimately you’ve got a much bigger problem, which is Donald Trump.”
John Kelly certainly has the tools to be an outstanding chief of staff, but only time will tell if President Trump will allow him to do what is needed to be successful.