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Donald Trump

John Kelly: ex-general enters White House ‘zoo’ to impose order for Trump

Retired Marine General John Kelly is a battle-hardened commander who would bring a background of military discipline and order to Trump’s roiling White House

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 3:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 July, 2017, 9:39pm

US President Donald Trump is trying to take command of his floundering administration by enlisting a retired four-star Marine general as his White House chief of staff, empowering a no-nonsense disciplinarian to transform a dysfunctional West Wing into the “fine-tuned machine” the president has bragged of running but has not yet materialised.

John Kelly will be sworn in Monday at the nadir of Trump’s presidency, with historically low approval ratings, a stalled legislative agenda and an escalating Russia investigation that casts a dark cloud.

Trump envisions Kelly executing his orders with military precision and steely gravitas, and without tending to outside political motivations or fretting about palace intrigue, according to Trump confidants. The president replaced Reince Priebus with Kelly, who had what Trump considers a star run as homeland security secretary, in the hope of projecting overall toughness and of inspiring the respect – and even fear – that has eluded him on Capitol Hill, where fellow Republicans last week defied the White House on health care and Russian sanctions.

Watch: Trump comments on Priebus and Kelly

But no matter how decisive his leadership, Kelly alone cannot turn Trump’s vision into reality. Warring internal factions that have stirred chaos, stoked suspicions and freelanced policies for six straight months may not easily submit to Kelly’s rule. And the president – whose rash impulses routinely have sabotaged the best efforts of his senior aides – has shown no willingness to be tamed.

“Kelly is an incredibly disciplined person who could bring order to the process if the animals in the zoo behave,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who served in seven administrations.

“The danger he has is that Trump will be Trump.”

Kelly got a quick introduction to his new life on Saturday: an angry tweet storm from Trump in which he told Senate Republicans to “Get smart!” and change chamber rules to make it easier to pass his priorities, saying that the senators “look like fools.”

If Kelly has been recruited to bring order to a turbulent White House, the first decision he must make is where to concentrate his energies.

There is not a single model for White House chiefs of staff, as all are derivative of the president’s style and preferences. But broadly, chiefs of staff can be viewed as either managing the president or managing the government, managing up or managing down and out.

In Trump’s White House, given the personality of the president and the clashing world views among the senior staff, Kelly might be forced to do both.

“It will be a challenge for someone who has demonstrated great discipline, General Kelly, to be able to introduce President Trump to some of the discipline he should have in the Oval Office,” said Andrew Card, who was President George W. Bush’s first White House chief of staff.

“Great generals do not allow impulse to dictate how they are going to inspire other people to do their jobs. Generals appreciate the consequence of decisions.”

No one disputes that Trump’s White House lacks discipline. This dynamic was not an accident. It was designed that way by the president-elect during the transition. Experts on government management knew from the minute Trump named Priebus as his first chief of staff and anointed Stephen Bannon as chief strategist with virtual coequal standing that this was going to be a White House with competing power centres.

These days, there are three camps in the Trump White House, factions that sometimes meld: family, represented by daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner; Trump campaign loyalists, including Bannon and counsellor Kellyanne Conway; and GOP establishment figures, such as Vice-President Mike Pence and other senior aides.

Kelly, who comes from none of those camps, is being grafted onto the existing body. He is well liked by all three factions and has forged a particularly close bond with two members of the Cabinet: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. The three men have formed a rapport as older, calmer presences in Trump’s orbit navigating tricky policy directives that frequently overlap.

In the White House, Kelly could form a natural alliance with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general who has struggled to take full control over the national security process.

As some administration officials texted and called each other Saturday to discuss Kelly, there was widespread angst, since few of them were familiar with his leadership style.

Throughout his life, Trump has venerated military valour, and he recruited several generals into his administration, including Kelly. He admired Kelly’s decisive moves to crack down on illegal immigration and border crime and first sought him out for the chief of staff role in mid-May. Trump was rebuffed multiple times until Kelly agreed this past week to take the job.

Even as confidants suggested other options for chief of staff, Trump kept coming back to Kelly. The collapse last week of the Republican health care bill sped up the president’s timetable to replace Priebus, according to people familiar with the move.

Kelly comes into the post as more of an equal to the president than Priebus, in terms of age – Kelly is 67 and Trump is 71, whereas Priebus is 45 – and stature.

“The kinds of people that Trump particularly likes are people with bucks – money – and braids – the military,” said Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.

Although Kelly does not bring legislative experience, Trump sees him as part of the solution to his administration’s legislative woes, according to people familiar with the decision to bring Kelly to the White House. Instead of hiring an insider who would ingratiate himself or herself on Capitol Hill, Trump wanted someone who adds stature and commands respect from congressional leaders, the people said.

Over recent months, Trump concluded that Priebus’s close relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan, became a hindrance, giving Ryan leverage and insight into the workings of the White House. He resented the suggestion that Priebus was a “Trump whisperer” who had to explain Trump to Ryan and other GOP leaders, these people said.

“The only way a chief of staff can be successful is if he is empowered by the president, and I never had any feeling that Reince Priebus was fully empowered by the president,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “The success of Kelly will be significantly dependent upon how much authority President Trump grants him.”

The environment is poised to change in the Kelly era. The new chief of staff is expected to have full control over the Oval Office and schedule, officials said. Trusted aides such as Hope Hicks, Dan Scavino and Keith Schiller – as well as senior advisers such as Kushner, Bannon and Conway – will continue to have casual access to the president.

But Kelly is expected to have a far tighter grip than Priebus was able to exercise on who participates in meetings and the process by which policy decisions are made.

Many of Trump’s top aides chafed at taking instructions from Priebus. When Anthony Scaramucci was hired as communications director this month, he received an assurance from Trump that he would report to the president, not to the chief of staff.

Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a history of White House chiefs of staff, said Kelly’s task will be “mission impossible” if his control is not absolute.

“If Scaramucci reports directly to President Trump, therein lies disaster,” Whipple said. “You can’t have a loose cannon rolling on the deck. Kelly has to make sure he’s in charge of the White House staff, in charge of the information flow to the president, and in charge of executing policy. And fundamentally, he’s got to be able to go in, close the door, and tell Trump what he does not want to hear.”