Reince Priebus. James Comey. Gary Cohn. Rex Tillerson. H.R. McMaster. Question: what do all of these men have in common? Answer: they all attempted to control, outmaneuver, or manage Donald Trump. Every single name on that list has been sent packing, either through an abrupt termination (in the cases of Comey and Tillerson), a disgruntled resignation (in the case of Gary Cohn), or a decision by the staffer himself that another few months on the job would be a needless strain (McMaster, probably, notwithstanding the standing ovation he received on his way out the door).
Now, amidst a weekend of stories about the trials, tribulations, and inevitable doom awaiting Chief of Staff John Kelly, the country is once again looking at a White House that is driving very close to the edge of a windy road.
If the press reporting is even slightly accurate, John Kelly’s influence on the West Wing has tumbled to its nadir. Kelly, a strong-willed personality who was transferred from the Department of Homeland Security to undertake the most thankless tasks in Washington, is allegedly screaming at subordinates for incompetence and getting into verbal spats with President Trump that are so loud staffers outside the Oval Office can hear the commotion. Kelly has threatened to walk from his job several times and has reminded Trump that the president can always dismiss him if he believes the White House staff is not performing up to par. Trump, who admires Kelly’s four decades in the Marine Corps, has rejected these allegations as typical “fake news” from biased journalists. But all of these accounts are perfectly in line with how Trump operated for decades as a real estate tycoon in Manhattan: unmoored from any principles, relishing chaos, causing mischief between employees to separate the wheat from the chaff, and immune to any and all structural restraints placed upon him.
Though entertaining reading, nothing that has been written about Kelly’s struggles in the White House should surprise anyone. In a normal administration, negative leaks to the press about a chief of staff would be the beginning of the end—a potentially mortal wound to his ability to retain the confidence of his staffers. Yet for this administration, it is just another day in Washington.
One can certainly understand why Kelly is not having a great time in the West Wing. After all, he was socialized into a military culture where hierarchy, order, bureaucracy, and chain-of-command were elemental principles of the well-oiled machine otherwise called the United States Armed Forces. Congressional Republicans who were desperately hoping for some stabilization at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue practically rejoiced when Trump appointed Kelly as Priebus’s replacement. What “Reincey” could not do—act as the enforcer of the president’s legislative agenda and the internal disciplinarian—John Kelly could, courtesy of his experience as a commander and manager. Priebus was never especially respected by Trump; Kelly most certainly was. He was the opposite of a political squish, an intimidating presence, brash and sometimes abrasive. Whereas Priebus was called into the Oval Office for fly-swatting duty, Kelly could conceivably hold Trump’s attention and get him to read the teleprompter without ad-libbing.
That was the hope, at least.
After only a few weeks, that hope was smashed into dust. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Trump started to despise the shackles that Kelly was closing around him. Two months in, the rumor mill was already churning about when Kelly would leave.
What Kelly needs to understand is that none of this is his fault. He’s had gaffes and oversights during his reign as chief of staff, sure, with the most serious being his actions preceding former staff secretary Rob Porter’s firing and his explanations after the fact. His relationship with Democrats is in the pits, most notably due to the immigration issue. And he hasn’t been the most politically savvy White House official in living memory either, especially on immigration, where Democrats have come to view him as not caring about where the Dreamers end up or how many illegal minors are deported. But none of these legitimate grievances have to do with Kelly’s competency as a manager, a task rendered impossible by a man at the top who rebels against at the smallest modification to his freewheeling, tell-it-like-it-is style. Not even James Baker, the Republican luminary typically sanctified as the golden example of a successful chief of staff, would be able to set limits for someone like Donald Trump.
Why we ever believed that anyone on this green earth could perform the role of presidential babysitter is a curiosity. Just as curious is why some of us are still caught off guard when Trump continues to act the way he’s acted since he was enrolled in a military boarding school as a teenager. John Kelly can go to bed at night knowing that the turmoil in the West Wing is not because of him, but rather because of a boss who feeds off of it.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.