Would You Want to Be Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The president of the United States couldn’t convince a relatively unknown 36-year-old political operative to be his White House chief of staff, despite spending months wooing the young tyro for the post and securing his daughter and son-in-law’s help with the recruiting effort.
A number of other candidates may be in play, as my Bloomberg News colleagues Margaret Talev and Jennifer Jacobs detail here. But it doesn’t appear that Donald Trump has any obvious candidates to turn to now that Nick Ayers said no to the job and John Kelly’s final few weeks as chief of staff will remind other potential replacements that playing the role of presidential gatekeeper means that you often wind up being a punching bag.
All of which is to say that chaos in the Trump administration isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Here’s a video I made with our commentary team in March 2017 — “Who’s Really Running the White House?” — which highlighted the chaos back then and speculated that advisers like Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Rex Tillerson would never have the staying power or presidential access that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump enjoyed. And given that Javanka lacked experience, depth, sophistication and self-awareness, we predicted that all of this would produce “chaos, from day to day to day.”
Still, it’s something to behold. In February 2017, just a month after Trump was inaugurated, General Tony Thomas, who runs the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command, said he was disturbed by mismanagement and instability in the federal government. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” he said at a military conference. “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
They didn’t sort it out soon. They still haven’t sorted it out.
Earlier this year, NBC News reported that Kelly “portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe.” (Kelly disputed the account.) But Kelly’s self-appraisal as the indispensable man with his finger in the dike made it into other news accounts. Bob Woodward, in his book “Fear,” quotes Kelly as describing the Trump White House as “Crazytown.” It turns out that Kelly, Crazytown’s sheriff, was only able to stand watch over the asylum for about 18 months.
Kelly may have been doomed from the moment he signed on as Trump’s chief of staff in July 2017. Kelly had to reassure then Attorney General Jeff Sessions that his job was safe (it ultimately wasn’t), fire the brand new and carnivalesque White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci (the Trump team continues to showcase a communications effort that is alternately comically befuddled and willfully misleading), monitor the kind of information that got to Trump and exercise tight control over who had access to the president.
“John Kelly knows the challenges he is facing,” Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, told Politico just days into the former Marine’s new job. “He’s not going to just stand to the side and watch the White House fall apart piece by piece.”
As it turned out, Kelly didn’t have to stand aside. He was pushed aside — by Trump. The president, who is 72, has never really taken advice from anyone other than his late father over the last five decades, and he certainly wasn’t going to begin doing so with Kelly. By trying to put Javanka in a corner, Kelly also set himself up for the same demise that befell Steve Bannon after he clashed with Kushner.
Whether he’s managing his company or occupying the Oval Office, Trump always puts family ahead of other business, political and personal loyalties. In that context, as I noted shortly after Trump was inaugurated, “Trump adviser” is a contradiction in terms. Trump isn’t patient, self-confident or strategic enough to take guidance from talented or experienced people, which leads him to make unfortunate, and frequently misguided, appointments. It also has created a record turnover rate in Trump’s White House — which is likely to accelerate in the new year as the president is greeted by a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats and by possibly disastrous battles with law enforcement authorities.
Ayers, who reportedly rose in the president’s estimation because he physically resembled (at least in the president’s eyes) a young Trump, may have grown wise about the fate awaiting him should life in the White House later turn sour: “Diminished public standing after an ugly parting with a mercurial president who often insults his former aides on Twitter,” as the New York Times put it.
That leaves the president, now, in greater thrall to Javanka.
But Kushner could be in legal danger as the Mueller probe grinds along, which may mean he’s distracted from overseeing ways to make the White House the “fine-tuned machine” of Trump’s news conferences. Ivanka has a possible investigation of her personal email usage awaiting her. These could prove to be less damaging events for Javanka then they appear to be, and perhaps they’ll turn the White House into an admirably run, chaos-free zone. Then again, winter is coming.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.