“Stop Bickering, Get in Early, Make an Appointment.”
That’s how the WSJ summarizes the new White House protocol implemented by Trump’s new Chief of Staff, Gen. John Kelly, appointed just one week ago, and who has been tasked with what many believe is impossible: restoring order to the White House.
It’s already working. According to an anecdote relayed by the journal, earlier this week, a small group of senior officials talked with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office about plans to take on Beijing over intellectual-property theft. When a side debate broke out between two top aides, the new White House chief of staff ordered the pair out of the room.
Return, John Kelly told them, once your differences are resolved, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
The move kept the meeting on track. It also signaled to top staff that Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star general, planned to bring new order and discipline to a West Wing that has been riven for six months with division and disorganization, a move which has been cheered by many on Wall Street – notably Citi – who believe that Kelly’s arrival could mark a new phase for the heretofore chaotic, disorganized presidency and which may even lead to Trump’s successful passage of his proposed tax reform.
Other signs of Mr. Kelly’s taking the reins, the WSJ reports, include the end of the unchecked flow of paperwork that crosses the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, and a new, more formal process for meeting with the president.
The marine veteran has, predictably, already imposed an army-like atmosphere:
Running one of his first senior staff meetings, Mr. Kelly laid down clear lines of authority and ordered aides to stay in their lanes. Discussions with senators, U.S. House members or others on Capitol Hill must be reported to the White House’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Mr. Kelly said, must know about meetings with foreign diplomats.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster this week removed from the National Security Council its senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick. Mr. McMaster had sought to fire him earlier this year, but the move was blocked by the president, according to one administration official. This week, Mr. McMaster informed Mr. Kelly before taking the step, and the new chief of staff didn’t object, according to an administration official. A second official said the move was a sign Mr. Kelly had no plans to micromanage staff.
Mr. Kelly moved senior staff meetings to 8 a.m., instead of 8:45, and holds them around the long mahogany table of the Roosevelt Room. His predecessor, Mr. Priebus, held the meetings in his office, where the television was often turned on and where staff could often redirect the discussion away from the agenda.
More importantly, Kelley has finally imposed much-needed discipline in what has been the weakest link of the Trump administration: the flow of constantly leaking information:
Among the clearest changes since Mr. Kelly’s arrival is a more careful review of information, from statements of fact to news reports, before it goes to the president’s desk, a White House official said. News articles and policy proposals will first be run through Mr. Kelly, in part to reduce the risk of erroneous material appearing on the presidential Twitter feed.
Mr. Kelly is also cracking down on what the White House official calls “paper”—unsolicited policy ideas that have made it to the president’s desk, and sometimes into his public statements, without serious review by his top-level staff.
Best of all, nobody will be spared Kelly’s rules: they extend to Trump’s family, including son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, who serve as official advisers in the White House and have their own staffs; both now report to Kelly instead of directly to the president, as does Steve Bannon. Better yet, staffers no longer loiter outside an open Oval Office door, hoping to catch the president’s eye to be waved in for a chat or the chance to pitch a new idea. That door is now closed.
In true army fashion, aides can’t linger outside the chief of staff’s office, either.
White House staff waiting to see Mr. Kelly—or other senior advisers in nearby suites—are asked to remain in the lobby, where White House visitors sit on couches and can read a selection of daily newspapers.
In an amazing development, Kelly’s new process is said to have has slowed the president’s use of Twitter. As reported on Wednesday, the chief of staff also reassured Attorney General Jeff Sessions he isn’t on the verge of being fired, after sustained public criticism by the president, and he has instructed the often-feuding factions in the White House to “get their act together” before bringing an issue before the commander-in-chief.
“Everyone in the White House likes referring to him as ‘General,’” said former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of the 67-year-old chief of staff, describing a “sense of relief” in the West Wing this week.
So is Kelly the now de facto “shadow president”, perhaps the only figure of authority whom Trump will listen? Perhaps, although the question now is whether or for how long the new discipline can last.
The president is described by friends and critics alike as reveling in chaos and enjoying public competition among his top advisers, as the recent revolving door fiasco involving Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci demonstrated.
So strict is the new “General”, that some are already betting on Kelly’s downfall.
“The problem here is that he won’t have anyone to talk to, and he’ll get frustrated,” said one person who regularly speaks with Mr. Trump. “I give General Kelly four months.”
Needless to say, Kelly’s success, or failure, will determine whether the White House can successfully pursue its agenda, which has stalled amid a tumultuous period in Washington unlike any other recent presidency. In the latest Quinnipiac survey, Trump’s approval rating crashed to a new low, even as the president faces an intensifying probe into his alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
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Whether he is gone in just a few months or not, there are sadly limits to what Kelly can control, with Trump’s Twitter account the most visible example.
While the president tweeted less this week, on Thursday morning he criticized Congress’s passage of sanctions against Russia. The message contradicted Vice President Mike Pence, who, two days earlier, said the sanctions bill showed Mr. Trump and Congress were “speaking with a unified voice.”
Additionally, while Kelly can direct the president’s schedule, he will likely struggle to contain Trump’s penchant for picking up the phone and calling his roster of longtime friends from New York. As the WSJ observes, “it wouldn’t work to try to isolate President Trump. He would rebel against that,” Rudy Giuliani said. “General Kelly has to balance on the one hand an orderly process, and on the other hand an orderly process that doesn’t in any way isolate the president.”
Despite protests that Kelly is not there to babysit Trump, many are hoping that’s precisely what he will do:
A White House official said Mr. Kelly has been “very clear that he’s here to manage the staff, not to manage the president.” His efforts to control the information and advisers reaching the president are to ensure Mr. Trump is “being properly staffed.” the official said.
Kelly – who grew up in Boston and served as chief of the U.S. Southern Command, the division that oversees U.S. military activities south of Mexico, including Central America, South America and the Caribbean – has said he hadn’t met the president until Priebus, the man he ultimately replaced, called after Trump’s November election victory to gauge his interest becoming the new president’s secretary of Homeland Security. He took the job and soon joined Trump’s inner circle, becoming one of the few cabinet secretaries who frequently dines with the president.
To be sure, for now at least, Trump appears in awe of the General.
Trump was impressed by Mr. Kelly’s presentations at DHS, at times describing him as “a killer.” He is also taken, said one official, by the “presence” of his chief of staff, who stands about 6-foot-2 and tends to dominate the room. Mr. Trump had offered Mr. Kelly the chief of staff job in the spring, officials said, but Mr. Kelly declined at that time.
Unlike the drama that seems to follow Trump everywhere he goes, people who have known Mr. Kelly for years describe his style as no-nonsense. He introduces himself on phone calls and in emails to people he knows simply as “Kelly.” “If you’re in a 10-minute meeting with him, he’ll be quiet for the first nine minutes,” listening before making a decision or a pronouncement, said one person close to him.
“You’re starting to see a different flow, a different discipline,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters on Thursday. Mr. Mulvaney said when he has spoken with Mr. Trump by phone this week, the chief of staff has also been on the line.
With Trump departing today for a two week vacation, Kelly will have some time to familiarize himself with the White House chaos and improve his tactics.
Mr. Kelly’s new system is a work in progress, the White House official said. White House staffers expect final decisions about how the West Wing will run under Mr. Kelly to be set more firmly in place later this month.
Mr. Trump is sure to see at least one issue resolved when he returns: A new air-conditioning system is set to be installed in the White House while the president is out of town.
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Not everyone is excited by the recent transitions. Some, such as the New Republic, are very concerned what the sudden rise to power by two generals – Kelly and McMaster – in the White House means:
Where the generals haven’t been empowered to run the show, they have asserted themselves nonetheless. “In the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday, Mattis and Kelly agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.”
It would be sensationalizing things to call this a soft coup, but it is impossible to deny that real presidential powers have been diluted or usurped. Elected officials have decided that leaving the functioning of the government to unelected military officers is politically preferable to invoking constitutional remedies that would require them to vote.
And, of course, they bring up the famous 25th Amendment:
When a president can no longer serve faithfully, there are means available to Congress and the cabinet, through the impeachment power and section four of the 25th Amendment, to remove him.
The conclusion: “If you fear the creep of autocracy or the crisis of absentee leadership in Trump’s White House, then the truly troubling thing isn’t that government officials, current and former, are sounding the alarm. It’s that the people who have the power to end these crises are leaving us all at risk by placing their faith in generals looking the other way.”
Whether Kelly’s arrival is a “soft coup”, and means that the US is increasingly in the hands of the military, as some suggest, remains to be seen. However, it has become increasingly obvious that the current chaotic status quo was becoming dangerously unsustainable. Maybe generals in the White House is just what Trump needed. On the other hand, there are countless examples in history where this type of soft power transition has ended very badly, especially for foreign countries . Someone who is, or should be, most concerned by the arrival of the “General”, is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, for patently obvious reasons. The next time the Trump admin needs a major distraction, Kim’s survival chances will be lower than the Vix.
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