John Kelly's Problems Go Well Beyond Porter Mess

(Bloomberg View) -- It appears that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly could be in his final days on the job as his mishandling of the Rob Porter situation blooms into a full-out scandal. He's getting hit from all sides, much of it from those opposed to President Donald Trump, but plenty from those inside the White House, at least according to all the anonymous quotes out there. 

Sure, Kelly has alienated a lot of people with his comments about supposedly lazy Dreamers, his attacks on a military widow and his defense of Robert E. Lee. But at the end of the day he is responsible for a process job -- hiring, firing, coordinating, managing up and managing down. So it makes sense to measure him on how he's handling those responsibilities. I suggested five process criteria to grade Kelly by when he took the job at the end of July, and gave him an interim report early on. Now, with the possibility that he's about to leave, it's time for an update.

Cleaning House: In September, I thought he deserved a B+ or A-, and a month ago I would have still said he had done well on this aside from nepotism hire Jared Kushner's continued service. That was before Rob Porter (and David Sorenson) were exposed; it was also before stories of numerous White House staffers who had problems with security clearances. These stories aren't unrelated, since it appears that Kushner's security clearance problems may have been linked to the others. It's real progress that a lot of the early White House clown show has ended, but the best Kelly can get on this one is a soft B-, and that might be generous only because firing Kushner is probably an option he didn't have.

Rebuilding: Kelly has failed to bring in talented people to help him run things. At best, he's filled the lower ranks of the White House with solid newcomers, but there's not enough reporting at that level to have any real sense of what's happened. Once again, the failures are connected -- it appears likely that one reason the chief of staff valued Porter is that Kelly didn't have a deeper bench. And once again, the job was challenging: The reputation of the president, along with a special counsel investigation, made it difficult to attract good staffers (and as my View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out, it's usually the case that when the first group leaves, the next team is often worse). Still, it was Kelly's job to overcome the problem. Let's call it a C-.

Empty Threats: I see no evidence that the president's reputation as a paper tiger has improved at all since the summer. Just this week, as Ponnuru says, Trump floated a new protectionist plan which doesn't appear to be backed by any kind of administration thinking. Kelly has said his job is to manage the staff, and not the president, but that just means he didn't really even try to do better than a D.

Policymaking: Trump's state of the union speech was full of stories about ordinary people and missing the policy points that those people would presumably have been supporting. Sometimes those plans are released in accompanying talking points, but not really this time. Trump's team never did come up with much on either health care or taxes. But credit where it's due: They finally did manage to produce a real infrastructure plan this week after promising one for months. That's an improvement from failure, so give Kelly a D. 

Basic Management: Along with showing folks such as Steve Bannon the door, this one is Kelly's biggest accomplishment. Both paper flows and Oval Office traffic have by all accounts become far more professional than they were in early 2017. Don't underestimate the importance here; there's no shortage of quotes from previous White House staffers emphasizing just how important these seemingly mundane process elements are to good decision-making and eventual policy success. Points off because Trump has evaded Kelly's system by just not showing up to work as often. If controlling paper flow and the door to the Oval Office are part of managing the information the president is seeing, then it's an important failure if the president is paying more attention to the dubious sources he consults during "executive time" and that the chief of staff is unable, or even worse uninterested, in managing. All in all, let's give Kelly a B for this one.

Should Kelly also get deductions because he seems to be unpopular within the West Wing and has collected a fair number of enemies inside and outside of the White House? I'm inclined to think Jonah Goldberg is correct that this is more about the natural effects of the parts of the job he's doing well than an indication of something going wrong, but it's very hard to tell from the information we can get for now. 

The most charitable way of looking at Kelly's tenure is that he professionalized the most chaotic parts of the operation while doing little else to make it into a "fine-tuned machine." A harsher assessment would be that Kelly took on the easiest battles only and didn't even win those outright. The events of the last week can't help but suggest that the harsher interpretation is more likely the correct one. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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.

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