Can Kelly do any better as chief of staff?
Given that Reince Priebus was the weakest chief of staff since Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton’s childhood friend, that the White House was a den of infighting, that President Trump’s agenda has stalled, that the president on a daily basis disrupts his message and the executive branch more generally, the shift from mousy Priebus to no-nonsense former general John F. Kelly may give Americans hope that the chaos will subside. I’m not sure there are grounds for optimism.
One wonders what understandings were hammered out before Kelly took the job. Did he get full control of all White House staff? Was Kelly given any reassurance that the president would not try to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without giving him a chance to weigh in? We don’t know, but Kelly, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has the gravitas and leverage to threaten to resign if Trump really goes off the rails. Because Kelly reportedly has a good relationship with chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon and the Trump children, perhaps he can clamp down on the staff wars. A number of questions remain.
Can Kelly, who lacks political experience and has clashed with congressional oversight committees, navigate a functional relationship with Republican House and Senate leaders?
Will Kelly insist on a standard of forthrightness and honesty heretofore absent in the White House, or will the nonstop lies, spin and stonewalling continue?
Can Kelly muzzle new Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, whose New Yorker interview this week marked a new low in White House decorum?
Can Kelly, who has obediently carried out Trump’s aggressive, inhumane and constitutionally suspect orders as head of the Department of Homeland Security, tell Trump when he is wrong — and get the president to follow his advice?
The overarching problem is the degree to which the president has lost his emotional stability (or what remained of it) and become divorced from reality. We’ve seen the president, in essence, melt down repeatedly over the past couple of weeks. To be blunt, Kelly’s hardest task will be to steady the president and prevent his emotional and political self-destruction. It’s not clear anyone can do this.
Finally, Kelly’s departure opens up the job of homeland security secretary. The Senate has an obligation to carefully vet Kelly’s successor, determine his or her intentions for the partially halted travel ban, immigration dreamers and more. It’s long past the point at which the GOP should cease rubber-stamping nominees.
Kelly brings personal discipline to the White House, but it is far from clear he can impose discipline on Trump. With Trumpcare’s failure, the tantrums about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the tweeted ban on transgender people in the military, this has been the worst week of the Trump presidency. At least under Kelly, there is opportunity for vast improvement — even if just to some semblance of normalcy. Kelly’s selection is a vivid admission that this presidency is failing. We will see whether the damage is reversible.