Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leaders UK programme.
Administrative churn in the White House is normal – President Obama had three Chiefs of Staff in three years. But the rate of hiring and firing at present shows a White House desperate to get out of a downward spiral of disorder.
“A great day at the White House!” President Trump tweeted after a truly bizarre day in Washington. He was of course right. It was a great day – for the White House press corps, the international media, and the political commentariat.
In what had been an ominously quiet couple of news days for this administration, the White House circus rolled back into town all guns blazing.
In his campaign, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swap”. To the receptive ears and repeated cheers of his adoring audience, it was a campaign slogan that struck a nerve and epitomised an anti-establishment movement.
Little did we know that President Trump’s Washington cull would begin with draining the swamp that he helped populate. There is a growing list of short-term victims of the Trump administration, having lasted between just 10 and 189 days between them (h/t Axios):
- Sally Yates (Acting AG) – fired over the travel ban.
- Michael Flynn (National Security Advisor) – quit because of Russian contacts.
- Michael Dubke (Communications Director) – voluntarily quit.
- James Comey (Director of the FBI) – sacked because of his interest in allegations of Russian collusion.
- Walter Shaub (Director of the Office of Government Ethics) – quit after frustration over the White House’s ethics record.
- Sean Spicer (Press Secretary) – quit before he was sacked.
- Reince Preibus (Chief of Staff) – sacked to make way for General Kelly.
The man who became a household name across America for his TV catchphrase, “You’re fired”, has remained remarkably consistent since departing Trump Tower for the White House.
But Trump saved his most remarkable hiring and firing so far until this week: Anthony Scaramucci, Director of Communications, was cast onto the Trump scrap heap after just 10 days in the role.
Reduced to a statistical anomaly in the Trump administration, The Mooch’s only contribution to American public life will be remembered for an on-the-record foul-mouthed rant to a journalist, in which he suggested that White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon overly enjoyed his own company.
In trying to lay down a marker for his own style of leadership, he became victim to the president’s new Chief of Staff, General John Kelly.
Who is John Kelly and what does his hiring mean?
The former marine is seen to be a safe pair of hands, who has earned the trust of the President in six months of service in this White House. He reportedly bases his political judgement on being non-ideological, perfectly befitting the approach of the pragmatic President he serves.
General Kelly should be honest enough to admit that he faces a long and growing list of problems as he assumes his new position. From a policy perspective, he will need to help engineer improved relations with Republicans on the Hill, who saw no reason to bend to the president’s will and vote for the efforts to repeal Obamacare. Helpfully, Kelly has some Senate experience after three years’ work as the Marine Corps commandant’s legislative assistant.
Next, upon entering the White House machine, he will need to rip up and rework the White House’s policy and legislative outreach and communications process.
A military man in uniform who is the polar opposite of a New York financier in pin-stripes, Kelly represents a new style of saviour that the White House has sought out in its latest moment of need. He will try and bring a calmer nature to the White House. That is easier said than done in an administration in which warring tribes are a part of the DNA and which is led by a President who refuses to be controlled.
Expectations of Kelly seem extraordinarily high – but is bringing order to a White House with chaotic structures established by design a realistic possibility?
Regardless of the identity of Trump’s gatekeeper, the battle for power, relevance, and the President’s ear remains. Factions will keep briefing against each other if they think it advances their interest. General Kelly himself is not exempt from that either, and may soon find himself on the back of leaked sniping by the competing White House camps.
If Kelly seriously hopes to bring a cool, calm and collected approach to this White House, he will need to start at the top of the shop. Is he confident enough to tell Trump to halt his 5 am tweets and foreign policy slurs? If so, is there any indication that the President will listen, having refused to curb his natural excesses until now?
If Trump wants to continue governing by Twitter, Kelly won’t be able to control him. Billionaire property magnate Donald Trump is used to having his name on the building and controlling all those who work within it. The White House is no exception. Trump’s name is effectively emblazoned across the front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and he will fire anyone who tries to restrict his reach.
Kelly needs a grace period
For now, there is no question that General Kelly is in charge and will reign supreme over the heads of the warring factions – the Jareds, Ivankas, Bannons, and Millers of this administration. But just as our own Theresa May learned after the general election, presenting a united front doesn’t last long when there are ongoing crises and palace intrigue about succession plans.
His first goal might be to shift the spotlight away from infighting and scandal, which disguises the campaign promises being fulfilled by more competent and capable colleagues in Trump’s Cabinet. For too long, the White House has been the main story in town. General Kelly should try and change that as a first order of business.
So what becomes the litmus test for General Kelly? Crucially, he needs an implementation period of his own to audit the administration and implement his approach. His role will be more about pouring cold water on this White House’s habit of self-immolation than curbing its natural instincts that remain so popular with Trump’s core supporters.
His impact may not be instant. But at the rate at which senior members of staff in this White House are being dismissed, it might need to be.