It seems there was much ado about “The Mooch” for the new White House chief of staff. But if four-star, retired Marine general John Kelly is to succeed in reining-in a turbulent Trump administration as gatekeeper to the president, he’ll likely need to do a lot more than reportedly orchestrate the ouster of Anthony Scaramucci.
The former White House communications director, who had taken to calling himself “The Mooch,” made himself into a liability worth cutting loose on Monday after he went on an R-rated tirade to a reporter. Kelly, the newly tapped chief of staff, reportedly requested that U.S. President Donald Trump fire Scaramucci. The former hedge fund manager’s tenure lasted 11 days.
Forcing Scaramucci out was a “no-brainer” to Chris Whipple, an expert on presidential chiefs of staff. Even so, he said it only amounts to “a good first step” towards Kelly’s purported mission to fix a White House in chaos.
Presidential historians agree that how much power the president is willing to cede to his new chief of staff will determine how functional the White House can be. It may also dictate how long Kelly lasts in this role, after assuming it from Reince Priebus, who exited last week after serving a tumultuous 189 days.
“Trump is apparently at least listening to Kelly on day one. Now comes the hard stuff,” said Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.
Here’s what some experts say Kelly should do next:
Kelly needs to be a gatekeeper
Critics will be watching carefully whether Kelly fulfills the traditional gatekeeper role, limiting direct communications to the president and managing his schedule.
Kelly’s military background comes with a deep respect for chain-of-command management, said presidential historian Mike Purdy.
“So it’s going to be very interesting to see, what does that mean for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner?” Purdy said of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, close confidantes believed to have previously enjoyed free and direct access to Trump.
Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon also seems to be a powerful force behind the scenes, exercising extraordinary influence on Trump. That access could cease under Kelly’s watch if he takes a more traditional approach to the post, Purdy said.
Ivanka Trump and Kushner reportedly said they would follow Kelly’s lead. Before Scaramucci was sacked, he had reportedly boasted about his direct line of communication with Trump, circumventing the chief of staff. That may have been at least a partial reason for his dismissal.
He will have to challenge the president
While the president reportedly made New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fetch his McDonald’s order and called on former chief of staff Reince Priebus to kill an insect in the Oval Office, those kinds of menial tasks won’t fly with Kelly.
“The general is one of the few people you would expect to allow president Trump to humiliate repeatedly,” said Republican strategist Evan Siegfried.
Trump, who attended military academy as a teenager, has shown an affinity for generals, appointing several to key cabinet posts, including Kelly at one time as his homeland security secretary, James Mattis as his defence secretary and H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser.
He may extend that deference to Kelly, meaning Kelly may be able to fulfil what Whipple argues is the “chief function” of an effective chief of staff — to challenge or question the president when it feels warranted.
“Is Trump capable of empowering a White House chief of staff to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear?” Whipple said. “Because Trump needs to hear hard truths. And unless Kelly can tell him that, this will all be for naught.”
He must stop the infighting
Discipline is expected to be a central theme for the new military-minded chief of staff.
Purdy said leaks are likely due to concerned staffers within the administration “who are aghast by what the president is doing,” and see it in the public’s interest to make it known.
And if I were general Kelly, I would be demanding to review all the tweets.
– Jon Schaff, political scientists
To Siegfried, the only way to plug the leaks is to have “a fully functioning and competent White House that’s achieving results” without deep interpersonal conflicts. He was at least encouraged by the firing of Scaramucci, whose departure he likened to “the need to amputate a bad limb hanging on by a thread.”
Scaramucci had threatened to “fire everybody” in the White House communications shop over leaks, and flared tensions with Priebus when he publicly accused him in a tweet of being a leaker.
Mark Updegrove, former director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, noted that while it may have been part of Trump’s managerial style to sow competition between factions and power centres in the West Wing, “those competitive force have made for a very chaotic and disruptive White House.”
Kelly is not likely to tolerate that kind of infighting.
Trump must entrust Kelly with power
By virtue of being someone put in place to control access to the president, Kelly should, in theory, be able to substantially influence the agenda, Updegrove said.
“If a president has trust in his chief of staff, and knows he has his best interests at heart, he can give him great leeway to being a gatekeeper.”
On the other hand, Updegrove said that if Kelly himself is seen to attain “too much power or be recognized for that,” he could fall out of favour with a president he says is “ruled by ego.”
“Trump is a wildcard, and it’s likely that if Kelly is a threat to Trump himself, Trump might do something to pull him back.”
Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in South Dakota, expects that as a pre-condition to accepting the job, Kelly would have made sure of his hiring and firing authorities.
That’s the kind of “grunt work” Schaff said Trump may be willing to hand over to Kelly so the president can continue to do TV appearances, rallies and soak up the adulation of crowds, allowing Kelly to become a powerful decision maker.
“Somebody has to run the show; maybe it’s Kelly who ends up doing that,” Schaff said.
Kelly will have to pre-approve Trump’s tweets
While Schaff has a hard time believing Trump would ever give up his smartphone, part of the chief of staff’s job is to maintain messaging discipline.
“And if I were general Kelly, I would be demanding to review all the tweets” before Trump can publish them. That kind of stopgap measure might avoid the president’s habit of enacting “policy by tweet” such as his sudden announcement last week he was banning transgender people from serving in the military.
The president had tweeted Monday about there being “No WH chaos,” using a Twitter shorthand for the White House. With all the personnel shake-ups happening week to week, though, it’s becoming difficult to see the situation as anything but.