Politics blog: General Kelly as Chief of Staff could change things

The sheer number of articles written with a “Turning Point in Trump Presidency” headline should probably lead one to avoid making a similar pronouncement, given that Donald Trump seems to be rather set in his ways. Therefore, in an effort to gain distance from those pronouncements that now appear naive, this article will proceed with the premise of a “potential” turning point. How’s that for a stark contrast?

Trivial differentiations aside, considering all the events of Trump’s tumultuous tenure to date (hindsight being 20/20, of course), the appointment of General John Kelly as the White House chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus who was fired after just six months, has the potential to be a major turning point in the administration.

The hiring of Kelly and his military−style discipline will be a welcome addition to a West Wing in need of clear lines of authority. To understand the importance of delegation, some context is required. The chief of staff position, as we now conceive it, has its roots in both the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations.

Eisenhower served in many roles along his ascent up the ladder of U.S. military command, army chief of staff among them, and upon assuming the presidency he brought the organizational structure of the military along with him in Chief of Staff Sherman Adams. Access to the president was to be strictly controlled and regulated as to ensure clear lines of authority and information. No longer would a senior aide be able to waltz into the Oval Office to champion his favourite cause or advocate a preferred policy. Allowing an open−door policy led to dysfunction among staff as the president was liable to say x to one aide and y to another. This resulted in confusion as to how policies were to be enacted and staffed out through the ever-expanding bureaucracy of the executive branch.

This was largely an informal process, and succeeding chiefs of staff didn’t necessarily follow Adams’ approach, to their eventual dismay. Not until Nixon’s first chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, did the modern chief structure appear. Haldemen institutionalized the role of the chief for all his predecessors to follow. The chief’s primary duty was to be a gatekeeper. This entailed controlling access of both people and information, making sure the president was presented with multiple sides of an issue, ensuring policies were adequately staffed by the relevant agencies, and more.

However, the most important duty of the chief is to tell the President hard truths. A president surrounded by “yes men” is dangerous, as, despite popular perception (diminished by the current administration), the president is not omnipotent and is bound to have bad ideas. It is sometimes difficult for a political appointee to do this as they can have competing loyalties to their department, the president, and the American people.

There were deviations from the Haldeman model, most notably with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, who thought they could be their own chiefs of staff. Chaos ensued.  Their agendas stagnated due to poor administration, approval ratings plummeted, and despite eventual course corrections neither man was able to regain enough traction to win a second term.

Priebus clearly failed in many of these aspects. Staff had unfettered access to Trump, exacerbating many of his erratic and eccentric tendencies. Aides reportedly interjected favourable new packets in briefings to keep the President in a good mood. A man who is liable to change his mind faster than the Kardashians cycle through spouses should not be indulged.

When the travel ban was unveiled, there was no co-ordination with the agencies that would be implementing it on the ground. The defense department was caught off-guard by Trump’s transgender ban (Secretary Mattis was on vacation), and said they would not follow the “order” until it was made through formal channels. A strong Commander-in-Chief could have stopped all the mixed and inconsistent messages sent out by the White House.

Though, in his defense, Priebus was in way over his head. Trump clearly didn’t want to be controlled, and Priebus didn’t have the gravitas of personality to impose his will upon a strong−willed man.

Kelly will likely fare better. Trump has an established affinity for military generals, and Kelly is straight out of central casting. His influence has already been evidenced by the dismissal of Anthony Scaramucci, just 10 days after his introduction as communications director.

All of the aforementioned problems and solutions fall under the domain of administration, and a well-administered White House will serve the country well, no matter one’s stance on policy. In international relations an inconsistent message is fraught with danger, as it calls into question the reliability of any one pronouncement, causing other nations, allies and antagonists alike, to act in a similar haphazard fashion. An international crisis stemming from crossed wires or a mixed message is simply unacceptable in the nuclear age.

In conclusion, wouldn’t it be nice to talk policy instead of palace intrigue? A man can dream.

Photo by Meagan Casalino