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Why John Kelly can’t tame the White House chaos

- August 18, 2017

Shortly after hiring Anthony Scaramucci as director of communication, President Trump accepted the resignations of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus; he then brought in John F. Kelly as chief of staff to straighten out the White House. Kelly began his job by promptly firing Scaramucci. Trump then tweeted, “no WH chaos.” Less than three weeks later, top advisor Steve Bannon was gone as well.

Yet his actions speak louder than his words. The dysfunctional White House was a merely a symptom. Trump himself has haphazardly managed the White House, publicly undercutting his top officials and refusing to coordinate his policy decisions with them.

Managing the White House requires a strong chief of staff

Although Trump appointed Reince Priebus to be chief of staff, he was never willing to delegate sufficient authority. In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote, “I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to work each day and just see what develops.” This approach leads to a chaotic White House. Experience over the past half-century has shown that, although several close advisers must have regular access to the president, someone short of the president must make the trains run on time, guard access to the president and manage policymaking. That person is traditionally the president’s chief of staff.

Since Trump has not articulated a fixed ideological or policy perspective, and since many of his campaign promises were in conflict, shifting factions within the White House and Cabinet have competed for his ear. Priebus could not impose order or create a regular policy process because the factions could not agree on the administration’s main directions.

The Trump loyalist, populist, nationalist tribe has been led by Stephen K. Bannon, who has said the administration’s goal is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Priebus was identified with conservative congressional Republicans who favored free trade and entitlements cuts and were suspicious of Russia. Bannon sees them as part of the “swamp” that Trump had promised to drain. Trump’s national security team (national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) are realist internationalists who argue that the United States should adjust to a global world economy rather than fight it, and favor U.S. leadership of NATO and more accommodation with U.S. allies and adversaries — except Russia.

Outside these ideological and partisan factions, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka are major White House players. The breadth of Kushner’s policy responsibilities and his access to the president undermined Priebus’s authority.

All White Houses endure policy conflicts, personality clashes and miscommunication. These problems during Trump’s first six months were much more public and intense than those seen with any other recent president.

Chaos increases when the president contradicts, sidelines or ignores his top officials

Trump himself has engendered White House chaos by publicly undercutting his top officials and failing to consult them on important areas of public policy. Consider the fallout in February when Trump issued an executive order banning Muslim immigrants that had not gone through a regular policy process. Then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly, Mattis, and then-nominee Tillerson each complained that their departments hadn’t been consulted. Kelly said at a news conference, “This is not, I repeat, not, a ban on Muslims.”

But Trump contradicted him by tweeting, “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” Trump later criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department, tweeting that they “should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version.” Of course, the president issued the order himself and could have had it written any way he wanted.

Or consider Trump’s May firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. The president revealed that he was becoming irritated with continued pursuit of Russian influence allegations when he tweeted that the FBI investigation was merely a “taxpayer funded charade.” On May 9, Trump fired Comey; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president did so on the recommendation of Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. The next day, however, in an Oval Office meeting, Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” On May 11, Trump told NBC News that well before receiving the memo from Rosenstein, “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”

All of this reveals that the president fails to fully inform his staff about important policy decisions, and does not support them when they present public accounts to the media.

Finally, consider Trump’s efforts to repeal and/or replace the Affordable Care Act, which first failed to make it through the House before a second attempt passed, and then failed twice to pass the Senate. In urging Congress to act, Trump changed his position at least five times. The shifting positions and responsibility showed the lack of a coherent approach to policy and an inability to coordinate with Republicans in Congress.

Many other White House misfires reveal general dysfunction. Trump’s skeptical attitude toward NATO was opposed by his vice president and his national security team of McMaster, Mattis and Tillerson. In his Oval Office meeting with Russian diplomats, Trump revealed sensitive intelligence received from Israel. Trump wanted to dump the nuclear deal with Iran, but Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster disagreed. Trump’s tweets declaring a ban on transgender service members caught the Pentagon by surprise. Trump did not discuss his Aug. 8 threat that North Korea would be met “with fire and fury” with Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster or Kelly. After Tillerson said that Americans should “have no concerns about … the rhetoric of the past few days,” Trump tweeted that U.S. forces were “locked and loaded.”

These disconnects between Trump, his White House staff and Cabinet members seem to validate Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s quip to The Washington Post: “I don’t believe Trump colluded with the Russians, because I don’t believe he colludes with his own staff.”

Can the new chief of staff impose order?

When Kelly took over as chief of staff, he made immediate changes to counteract the weak White House discipline under Priebus. He insisted that all phone calls to the president be routed through the White House switchboard for his approval. He has taken steps to control informal access to the president, even insisting that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump check with him before advising the president. He is monitoring communications between Cabinet secretaries and the president.

But for Kelly to succeed, he will have to limit Trump’s tweets about policy, keep him from undercutting his top appointees, and make peace among the warring factions. Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta commented on Kelly’s appointment by saying that to be successful, “He must control all staff, know what each person is responsible for … and be fully aware of all policy discussion taking place with the president.” Changing this president’s behavior will be a daunting task, even for a former general and combat veteran.

Note: This post was updated on August 18, 2018. 

James P. Pfiffner is university professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.