The blunt truth is that all of this has been perfectly predictable from Day One. Donald Trump has been running the White House the way Jimmy Carter did for almost his entire presidency, and Bill Clinton did for his first several months. It just doesn’t work, even with an engaged and skilled politician (that is, Clinton) in the Oval Office. With an amateur? Chaos.
John Kelly, who served for a long time as a general and a short time as President Trump’s homeland security secretary, probably isn’t the best fit for White House chief of staff. But he has two advantages over Reince Priebus: extensive experience working in government and the power to do his new job properly. So perhaps he’ll turn out to be better at the job.
Everyone in the White House now reports to Kelly, who sent a dramatic signal on his first day by firing communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Still, that was the easy part. In the coming weeks, Kelly’s ability to turn this train wreck around will become clear by gauging progress on these fronts.
Firing More People
The big question is whether Kelly can really clean house, ridding the administration of the unqualified, inept gang of competing power centers which have made the first six-plus months of Trump’s presidency far more of a disaster than necessary. The top of the list, and perhaps the toughest test for Kelly, are chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner. The longer they stay, the more likely it is that Kelly will end up as just one more senior aide competing for Trump’s ear.
Adding Qualified Staffers
Kelly dismissed Scaramucci, but what kind of talent is he able to recruit? Will that person, for a change, actually have proper experience for that job? Will candidates who dropped out of the running in the past because of the toxic work environment and political situation consider serving an operation led by Kelly? There are an awful lot of jobs to fill in this White House, and Kelly can and should create even more openings.
Subtracting Empty Threats
Let’s see whether the White House stops issuing threats it can’t possibly back up. For example, over the weekend, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the Senate should return to health care before it takes up any other legislation, something that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will almost certainly ignore. Every empty threat further damages the president’s reputation, making even legitimate threats useless and generally destroying the president’s bargaining position across the board.
What would represent a big step up for this White House? Building a policy shop that’s actually able to, well, propose policies. For example, it might help get a tax bill passed if the White House was actually able to offer something more than vague outlines of ideas of notions of principles. Right now, everything from trade to taxes to immigration, including Trump’s border wall, are barely more (and in many cases considerably less) than the slogans they began as during the campaign.
Managing the Executive Branch
Let’s see whether the White House starts reining in excesses in executive branch departments and agencies, and pushing harder for the president’s program in others. Setting aside the pros and cons of Trump’s transgender ban in the military, it’s terribly damaging for a president to proclaim a policy to the nation and then fail to follow up with the relevant agencies.
And, yes, let’s see if basic professionalism returns to the White House. It would be a positive sign if, for example, they could start proofreading for spelling before issuing statements.
The chief of staff shouldn’t be a dictator; skilled people in that job tend to be honest brokers who give various administration players access to the president. Keeping the confidence of the president while simultaneously ensuring that everyone inside the White House, those in executive branch departments and agencies, and key players outside the White House all feel that they’re getting a fair shake is an enormously difficult challenge in the best of times. These aren’t going to be the best of times, no matter how well Kelly does.
But Trump Will Be Trump
There are, of course, severe limits to how much any of this can help. My colleague Timothy L. O’Brien is certainly correct that Donald Trump remains the most important problem in his own administration, and that really sets limits as to how well any of this can work. He’s never going to learn his brief. He’s never going to keep his mouth shut when he should, or deliver appropriate remarks without extensive hand holding, and even then it’ll always be hit or miss. The best possible Trump administration might be a lot better than what we’ve seen to date, but it’s never going to be good, and some of the damage already done (and time already wasted) can’t be wished away.
And the Russia scandal almost certainly is going to get worse. We don’t know what special counsel Robert Mueller is digging up, but the challenges of running a White House during a serious investigation are difficult indeed, and will also limit the extent of any recovery Kelly might attempt to engineer.
Kelly can’t fix the Trump administration. Not even James Baker, on his best day could do that. But there are always degrees of dysfunction, and it’s possible that the chaos could be turned down a notch.
Or possibly even two.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.