Politicians and Washington talking heads are falling all over themselves to describe how the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, might bring some order to a chaotic, dysfunctional and failing presidency.
Wrong. He’s the wrong person for the wrong job for the wrong president. The more sanguine assessments, and contrasts to his hapless predecessor, Reince Priebus, will continue for weeks, maybe months. It won’t last.
Kelly, a retired general, lacks the prerequisite skills for this powerful post, which is the consummate political job, not a command-and-control managerial task. It requires keen political sensitivities about policy priorities, Congress, the administration and bureaucracy, the party, interest groups and the voters. And a president who wants to govern.
That has been well demonstrated over half a century by successful chiefs of staff: Republicans like the Baker boys, Jim and Howard under Ronald Reagan, or Josh Bolten under George W. Bush; Democrats like Leon Panetta, John Podesta and Rahm Emanuel. And the failures have been unversed in the ways of Washington: Governor John Sununu under the first President Bush and Bill Clinton’s Mack McLarty, both of whom might have been fine Cabinet members, as well as Reagan’s Donald Regan.
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Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, was a combat-decorated, four-star Marine Corps general much respected by his troops and peers.
While knowledgeable about the politics of the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, which he has headed for the past six months, he is inexperienced in most of the ways of Washington. That’s difficult to learn on the job.
His reputation as a straight shooter has suffered during his stint in the Trump administration. That might be why the president likes him. Many thought he would be a brake on Trump’s mean-spirited, anti-immigration views. He hasn’t been.
“We had hope for General Kelly, but we have been deeply disappointed,” says Frank Sharry, a leading advocate for immigrants. He charged that the Homeland Security secretary “has done little more than front” for an assault on immigrants and has become “the pitchman for what only can be described as a mass deportation strategy.”
And while many national-security experts were stunned when Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, privately tried to set up a secret communications system with the Russians, run out of Moscow, Kelly said it was “normal” and “acceptable.”
Trump, who didn’t serve in the military, is drawn to stars and what he sees as tough guys. He loves to call Defense Secretary James Mattis by his old nickname, “Mad Dog,” something the intellectual retired four-star Marine general doesn’t prefer.
After being forced to fire his first national security adviser, Mike Flynn, a retired lieutenant general who has been caught in the probe of any Trump ties to the Russians, the president was enamored with his next choice, the highly praised Army general, H.R. McMaster. But the president has soured on McMaster.
Further, it’s doubtful that all the warring White House factions, working for a president with few core beliefs, lend themselves to a chain-of-command structure. It’s reported that Kelly has a good relationship with Stephen Bannon, the alt-right, immigrant-bashing Trump senior adviser. That won’t be reassuring to politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was close to Priebus, a fellow Wisconsinite, and who is detested by Bannon.
A Jim Baker or Leon Panetta would never have tolerated a fool like the communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, whose brief tenure was highlighted by an obscenity-laced tirade against his colleagues made him a laughing stock for late-night comedians.
This gets to the overarching issue: Trump, who revels in humiliating people. He hung Priebus out to dry and is doing that now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Before taking office, Trump led Mitt Romney to believe he might be secretary of state; the sole purpose was to make his former rival look as if he was begging for a job that never was to be. He did the same with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus.
And last month, with the cameras rolling, the president forced his Cabinet to declare sycophantically what a great president he was, and how lucky they were to work for him. There will be a time when he humiliates Kelly because that’s what he does. Will the general pull a Priebus and just bow his head? Trump doesn’t want anyone to stop him from being Trump.
The last time a military commander was named chief of staff for a beleaguered president was Al Haig 44 years ago in the Nixon administration. It didn’t take long to see that the problem was the emperor, not the clothes. That’s true today.
Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a former reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.