Donald Trump is not the first president to have a crush on a tough-minded, tough-talking bull of a man as White House chief of staff, with an impressive resume that seemed to promise a reign of ass-kicking competence.
And John Kelly is not the first chief of staff to be trailing blood from shards of porcelain in his hide after a bovine romp through the West Wing china shop.
The latest readings from the Washington seismograph suggest the retired four-star general Trump tapped to impose order on chaos in his young presidency is likely safe for now, with three sources who talk regularly with Trump saying the president has no intention of firing him. Kelly may yet avoid the fate of temperamentally similar predecessors such as Donald Regan, the former Wall Street CEO who appealed to Ronald Reagan for reasons not unlike those that drew Trump to Kelly.
For Regan, to war with Nancy Reagan turned out to be a bad career move. President George H.W. Bush dispatched his son George W. Bush to tell another chief of staff, former Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, that his tough-guy routine had worn out its welcome.
But even if Kelly survives the uproar over his bungled handling of the Rob Porter spousal abuse allegations, he will do so as a diminished and vulnerable figure — stripped of the mystique of martial authority and professionalism that once made him imposing. Kelly has already lost his luster inside the White House, where his colleagues — who once considered his word unimpeachable — have begun to doubt his honesty in crisis situations. Few feel he has has been forthright with them about what he knew about the allegations against Porter, whose two ex-wives have accused him of physical and emotional abuse, or how long it took Kelly to tell the former White House staff secretary to pack his bags.
To survive long-term, according to Washington veterans and people in Trump’s orbit, Kelly will need to reckon with a paradox: The fighting instincts that made him a good battlefield commander — and that made him attractive to Trump — are quite different from the shrewd political instincts that have marked most successful tenures as White House chief of staff.
Rather than fighting, Kelly needs to make peace on four fronts:
1. Make peace with Trump World
Remember all those favorable news stories soon after his arrival about how Kelly was cleaning house, limiting access to outside advisers who kibitz with Trump and removing badges from people he thought had no reason for them?
The people who lost their badges remember them, too.
One of the below-the-surface dynamics playing out in Kelly’s travails in recent days is how much his problems are being cheered — and compounded — by people who consider themselves loyal to Trump but loathe the chief of staff and have been agitating against him from the outside.
One of Kelly’s first moves after firing communications director Anthony Scaramucci, whom he regarded as an undisciplined loudmouth, was to deactivate the badge of Trump retainer Corey Lewandowski.
Both men remain prominent in the Trump World media echo chamber, and both still have open lines to the president. So do others, like campaign adviser David Bossie and ousted aide Omarosa Manigault.
Of the Porter debacle, Lewandowski recently crowed on Fox News: “Look, the general is there to put in policies and processes and procedures, and in this case those didn’t work and we need to find out why. And so, where the buck stops, I guess at the end of the day it’s with the general. …”
If it’s any comfort to Kelly, he is hardly the first chief of staff to bristle at the gravitational pull — often unseen and unaccountable — of outside advisers with the president’s ear.
When Leon Panetta was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, he once angrily hurled a fax machine (before e-mail, kids) when he saw a strategy memo that consultant Dick Morris was sending to Clinton outside official channels. But Panetta — possessed of political instincts that so far have escaped Kelly — knew it was folly to fight head-on with advisers whose advice the president valued. He bided his time, and Morris blew himself up in due course.
Kelly was right to insist on some procedures to control the flow of advice and political intrigue reaching Trump. But he paid a price by so poorly disguising his contempt toward many of the pot-stirrers, who had more ability to make his life miserable than he appreciated.
2. Make peace with Washington
It is a common conceit of chiefs of staff who come from outside Washington — and especially those who come from outside conventional political circles — that they are smarter and tougher than the assorted Beltway time-servers they encounter.
That works well when things are working well. But this approach typically increases the penalty when missteps inevitably happen.
As Kelly’s job has dangled publicly in recent days, he has had some support from senators. But that’s mostly because they regard him as a partial check on Trump at his most undisciplined, not because they regard him with any particular affection.
Members of Congress have complained that Kelly is not good at returning calls. Many have heard, correctly, that he sometimes refers to them behind closed doors as a “bunch of idiots.” And his cloddish political instincts were on display in the days before the Porter scandal broke, when he was on Capitol Hill trying to sell the president’s immigration proposal. Some immigrants were “too lazy to get off their asses” to apply for protection, Kelly told reporters on Capitol Hill, to gasps and cringing.
In addition, Kelly has apparently had few contacts with influential media figures or veterans of previous administrations — voices that could potentially speak in his favor during a political storm, or help him avoid a storm in the first place. Former White House chiefs of staff of both parties share a bond and have, over the years, offered advice and counsel to one other. Kelly, however, had kept his distance from those who have the kind of experience that could help him. He hasn’t sought their advice or returned their calls.
Kelly does have an alliance with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Beyond this, however, he is one of the more isolated and solitary chiefs of staff in recent memory.
3. Make peace with his own weaknesses
No one can doubt that Kelly’s personal combativeness was an asset when commanding fighting men and women in Iraq. “Hell, these are Marines,” he said in 2003. “Men like them held Guadalcanal and took Iwo Jima. Baghdad ain’t shit.”
Still unclear is whether Kelly has the humility to recognize how many political controversies associated with his tenure have been self-inflicted wounds.
The most visible moment of his time as chief of staff came in October when he marched to the White House press podium to defend Trump’s handling of a condolence call to a soldier killed in Niger. As a father who lost his own son to combat in Afghanistan, Kelly had special credibility for the moment.
But sanctimoniousness led him to lose that moment by making false statements about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the widow, insulting her as an “empty barrel.”
That clumsiness presaged the White House’s full-throated defense of Porter, authorized by Kelly, when reports of abuse allegations leveled by both of Porter’s ex-wives first surfaced. The defense failed and the White House has been consumed by recriminations — including intense criticism of Kelly from within the administration — ever since.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff, said the root cause of Kelly’s problems seemed to be his exaggerated self-regard — a problem that recalls those of Regan.
Like Regan, Whipple said, Kelly is “arrogant, oblivious, and imperious.” Though Kelly has shirked any responsibility for the president’s behavior — reminding reporters he’s chief of staff — Whipple said Kelly brought to mind Nancy Reagan’s remark about Regan: “‘He loved the chief part of the title, he didn’t love the staff part so much.’ I think that Kelly shares some of those traits and it’s hurting him.”
A former White House aide described the same dynamic with more sympathy: “You can only look at the motivation from huge admiration. The problem is that his background doesn’t necessarily translate to being the right skill set for that particular role. The reason you’re seeing the president calling Reince [Priebus, a former Trump chief of staff] weekly and Corey is because he doesn’t have the political and legislative advice, and I don’t think that’s through any fault of his own.”
4. Make peace with Trump
This may be the easiest challenge for Kelly. He has a relationship with the president, according to White House aides, in which they can scream and curse at each other with an ease that Priebus never had, then brush it off and get back to work.
If Kelly has survived the Porter storm, that dynamic may already be at work, though it is unlikely Trump will give the same deference as before now that the once-formidable general has amply demonstrated his status as a mere mortal.