It’s hard to gin up sympathy for anyone in a White House that’s deliberately dysfunctional, but in the bizarre case of the firing of a TV celeb-turned-adviser, blame shouldn’t fall on chief of staff John Kelly.
Omarosa Manigault Newman was blatantly unqualified for a White House job, let alone as one of the most senior, highly paid staffers. She had made her name playing the villain on Donald Trump’s reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” When Trump shocked himself and everyone else by being elected president, his bench was so thin that he hired enablers and hangers-on such as her for positions far beyond their capabilities.
It didn’t take long for Manigault Newman - known simply as “Omarosa” to millions of TV viewers - and other appointees to prove their incompetence. When her string played out, it fell to Kelly to dismiss her.
Perhaps aware of Manigault Newman’s reputation for secretly recording conversations with colleagues, Kelly summoned her to the West Wing’s high-security Situation Room. Cellphones and recording devices are banned there, but Manigault Newman managed to sneak one in nonetheless.
Now, as she promotes her tell-all book (a must-do for fired staffers, it seems), she is doling out sound bites on national TV and portraying herself as a victim of Kelly’s “threats.”
It’s nonsense. Kelly was in yet another untenable position caused by Trump’s disastrous decisions about policy and personnel. Trump, in fact, called Manigault Newman “a lowlife” when she turned on him.
Well, if she’s a lowlife, why did he give her a top White House post? Such ridiculous behavior is fit for a reality TV show, not running the world’s greatest superpower.
In the secret tapes, reported by The Associated Press and others, Kelly is heard saying: “It’s come to my attention over the last few months that there’s been some pretty, in my opinion, significant integrity issues related to you.” He cites Manigault Newman’s use of government vehicles and “money issues and other things” that might lead to a court martial had it occurred in the military.
“If we make this a friendly departure . you can look at your time here in the White House as a year of service to the nation, and then you can go on without any type of difficulty in the future relative to your reputation,” Kelly told Manigault Newman. “There are some serious legal issues that have been violated and you’re open to some legal action that we hope, we think, we can control.”
An unseemly White House conversation, yes, but hardly a threat. Kelly has protocols and norms to protect. He was doing his job under extremely difficult conditions.
From my time as White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama, I know the gravity of the Situation Room’s purpose and history, and its crucial guidelines for secrecy. It’s outrageous for any White House staffer - about to be fired or not - to record a conversation there and make it public.
These irresponsible actions are the inevitable results of Trump’s slapdash, egotistical approach to governing. Kelly was trying to make the best of a no-win situation. Manigault Newman’s shenanigans will heap more disrepute on this presidency. In this case, at least, Kelly shouldn’t get the blame.
William M. Daley was White House chief of staff from 2011 to 2012. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.