Coming up on the outside
Score a big one for President Trump on the day he turned over his White House staff to a fourstar Marine general and dumped after a week the vulgar braggart, Anthony Scaramucci, as his communications director.
Credit Trump with accepting, apparently, what an idiot he’d been a week before in hiring the clown Scaramucci, if not on another half-dozen counts.
Either Trump is newly making a measure of traditional sense, or my threshold for conventional wisdom has been lowered by six months of his nonsense.
What no one can predict is whether Monday’s pivotal moment portends more order, meaning some, or heightened madness. Or both. It could well portend both more White House staff order and more personal presidential madness.
What makes traditional sense is Trump’s replacing the Republican Party insider, Reince Priebus, as chief of staff with retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, a respected disciplinarian and taskmaster trained and experienced in chain of command, but not traditional politics.
Trump’s first order of business was to get Obamacare repealed. He apparently was persuaded that the Republican Congress could be counted on to get that simple promise kept under the leadership of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, both close to Priebus, recent national GOP chairman.
Trump, bored by the health issue’s policy minutiae, brought in Priebus primarily to get health care done through traditional Republican methods.
It was much like what Gov. Asa Hutchinson did at the outset of his governorship. He faced the daunting challenge of trying to get the Republican majority of the Legislature to save Medicaid expansion. For that task, he installed as his chief of staff the outgoing president pro tempore of the state Senate, Michael Lamoureux, to work with Republican legislators in much the way he’d worked with Republican senators as their leader.
The difference: Hutchinson and Lamoureux prevailed; Trump’s delegation to Priebus … you see how that turned out.
As soon as success was achieved in Arkansas, Lamoureux took off for Washington to become a lobbyist seeking to cash in on his close friendship with Tom Cotton. Hutchinson brought in an aide from his Washington days, Alison Williams, to become his chief of staff functioning more in an administrative than legislative lobbying role.
When ignominious failure on health care beset Trump last week, he dumped the insider and blunderer to whom he had delegated the matter. He signaled by the general’s selection that he wanted stricter staff leadership. He also indicated he would rely personally henceforth on the selfstyled unpredictable independence of the Republican establishment by which he had made fools of that establishment in the presidential primary.
A more constrained staff and an even less constrained president, if possible—that’s kind of what it looks like.
Where does all this leave those two other freelancers and power centers, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner?
They were in leading and combative roles an eternity ago in Trump Time, meaning June. Will they be brought to heel by the general? Or will they proceed with their own agendas—Bannon to destroy the “deep state” and Kushner to solve the Middle East?
Who knows? And, at the moment, who much cares? Keeping up with West Wing angling and machination is like watching a 20-horse running of the Kentucky Derby. You can’t focus on the entire field. You can focus only for the moment on the lead horses or those running for your money.
At present, the general is the horse to watch. That’s not to say Bannon and Kushner couldn’t come on in the stretch. But we’re only rounding the first turn.
And there remains Kellyanne Conway, an early betting favorite. She stumbled out of the gate and has fallen back in the field.
Finally, two parting thoughts: First, our local celebrity, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, may have been given a powerful reprieve.
For a few hours, it appeared she was supposed to work in the intense media glare both for “the Mooch” and the general, not to mention the megalomaniac who monitors her daily propagandizing for its aggrandizement of him. That seemed rather clearly to provide yet more reason for her to follow my advice Sunday to get out now and come home.
Now it appears she will work for only one taskmaster, the general, and one egomaniac, the president, and not a second freelancing egomaniac.
Her job has gone from totally impossible to probably impossible, more because of the egomaniac than the taskmaster.
Second, Mack McLarty told me once when he was chief of staff to Bill Clinton, also famously undisciplined, that he hadn’t appreciated that his job was to manage down, meaning the staff, and up, meaning the president.
Kelly will soon find that out. Generals don’t manage up; it violates the chain of command. But politics is different, and Trump more different still.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.