WASHIINGTON — The most important position in the nation that exists outside the Oval Office is the Chief of Staff of the White House. He is the gray eminence, the man from whom the president depends on a last word, the man who must hold the delicate machine together.
The Chief of Staff must be not only grounded in the management of business, but a specialized one: politics. He must thoroughly understand the legislative process, its major players and how they fit into the president’s agenda. But most of all he should be totally acquainted with his boss — his character, likes and dislikes, his sensitivities and his strengths — and he needs almost to have a spousal discreet awareness of his inner thoughts and desires so that he can respond to them quickly.
In other words, he has to be Superman, able to change persona and uniform in a phone booth in lighting speed.
Good luck in finding someone with all those qualities, particularly to deal with a president who is a quick-moving, hip-shooting novice in the pitfalls of political life and whose chaotic approach to governance is unique. It’s enough to give a general like John F. Kelly, who has a rigid military discipline and ideas about how things should be run, heart burn … and more.
For modern political observers, as close as one might come to filling that bill were the “Baker boys” (unrelated), former Sen Howard H. Baker Jr., who took over the job for Ronald Reagan when Donald Regan incurred the wrath of Nancy Reagan and others, and James A. Baker III, who had served as treasury secretary under Reagan and became chief of staff for George H.W. Bush. Both brought broad expertise to the job enhanced by a keen understanding of the city’s foibles and how to get things accomplished
Kelly may survive as Donald Trump’s supposed-to-be alter ego for the time being, but his chances for the long term aren’t good in the wake of his current seeming support of fired White House aide Rob Porter, accused of abusing two former wives. Despite Trump’s shaky stance on the entire subject of sexual harassment, the president made it clear that Porter should go only to have his chief make it obvious he didn’t like that stance and the most explosive domestic subject of the day burst around the two men.
This shouldn’t have been Kelly’s post in the first place. His experience as a strong military manager was not what Trump needed, which was someone who understood the wiles of Washington and the right buttons to push to solve problems and protect his boss. Apparently, he wasn’t getting what he wanted from Kelly even before the contretemps over Porter. In fact, warnings of the abuse charges had been around for some time but ignored. The FBI is trying to figure it out.
Trump unceremoniously traded former National Republican Chair Reince Priebus for Kelly after a relative few number of weeks because he regarded him as too ineffectual and independent in the beginning of the internal White House earthquake that still is sending out waves of tremors and aftershocks.
The strong hand that was supposed to be, Kelly, has taken on a shaky look at times despite previously having served well as Secretary of Homeland Security.
Kelly has sent out mixed messages abut the Porter incident, supporting him at first and praising his abilities only to say later there was no place for the kind of abuse his former wives have reported. The Washington Post has said that much of the White House staff is concerned about the image it has portrayed, sending out the wrong message with the argument regarding when the White House actually was informed. It would appear the notification was much earlier than the administration had claimed. Although Porter was vetted early last year for a security clearance, he had not received it.
Whether Kelly stays or goes is anyone’s guess. The odds are about 50-50 considering Trump’s penchant for precipitous moves. But Kelly, like the president he serves (or tries to), shouldn’t be there.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org .