Embattled Trump turns to Kelly
Hoping to bring order to a White House beset by leaks and infighting, President Donald Trump this week replaced Chief of Staff Reince Priebus with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly—who immediately fired Anthony Scaramucci, the controversial White House director of communications appointed only 10 days earlier. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, won Trump’s approval by successfully enacting the administration’s tough new immigration and border control policies. Known for his strong leadership and blunt, no-nonsense approach, Kelly reportedly got assurances from the president that all senior White House staff—including Trump’s daughter and son-in-law—would report directly to him. Trump called Kelly a “great leader” and “a true star of my administration.”
Scaramucci was fired in large part because of an extraordinary expletive-laden phone call with a New Yorker journalist last week. The former hedge fund manager vowed to “f---ing kill all the leakers” in the White House and personally attacked Priebus, calling him a “f---ing paranoid schizophrenic” who had blocked him from getting a West Wing role in January. Scaramucci also denigrated White House senior strategist Steve Bannon, using a vulgar sexual term to suggest he was interested only in burnishing his own reputation. Priebus was forced out the next day, but three days later, Scaramucci, too, was gone.
The personnel shake-up came after what was perhaps Trump’s worst week in office, with a humiliating defeat on health-care legislation (see Controversy), the Priebus-Scaramucci fiasco, a backlash against Trump’s provocative speeches to the Boy Scouts and police, and growing resistance from fellow Republicans. Kelly immediately had to deal with his first leak: CNN reported that when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, Kelly called the G-man and told him he was so upset that he was thinking of resigning.
What the editorials said
Kelly’s dismissal of Scaramucci “represents the introduction, at last, of order” to “a White House run by novices,” said the Washington Examiner. The Mooch “needed firing.” As smooth and impressive as he was in his first and only press briefing, the “Wall Street bomb thrower” made his position untenable with his “utterly idiotic,” profanity-laced interview. By getting rid of Scaramucci as his first act, Kelly demonstrated he really is “the disciplined, and discipline-demanding Marine he has been made out to be.”
Kelly certainly “has the capacity to be the adult in the room,” said The New York Times. He has “far greater managerial experience” than Priebus, and none of the “political baggage”; the former Republican National Committee chairman “brought on his own team of party functionaries and infighters.” But Kelly’s fate depends on whether he can truly control access to the Oval Office and temper Trump’s worst instincts. How do you impose discipline when the president rage-tweets at dawn and keeps “blindsiding his staff” with impulsive announcements and policy decisions? “The chaos starts with him.”
What the columnists said
Trump’s elevation of Kelly shows he is in full-on “panic mode,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio in CNN.com. Braggadocious yet deeply insecure, the president has evidently lost confidence in his ability to handle the multiple threats he is facing, including a rebellious GOP, special counsel Robert Mueller’s widening investigation, and a defiant North Korea. Having held a deep respect for “strong military men” since attending military school, Trump has turned to a retired general to instill some order and discipline. It may work for a while. But as soon as Trump “feels comfortable again,” he will likely “revert to chaos.”
Kelly will certainly bring major change, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Post. There will be no more “open-door Oval Office gabfests,” or “kibitzers loitering in the hallways hoping to catch the president’s eye.” After a chaotic start, President Clinton “saved his presidency” by making Leon Panetta his all-powerful chief of staff, and Trump’s choice of Kelly could have a similar result—if the president listens to him, tweets less often, and stays focused. You really expect Trump to change? asked Jamelle Bouie in Slate.com. Trump may finally have a competent chief of staff, but the president is “still erratic, still impulsive, still ignorant of the basics of governance”—and he’ll continue blaming everyone but himself for his failures. Trying to control Trump’s self-destructive impulses is “inevitably a losing battle.”
After the “farce” of Trump’s first six months in office, this may be “the beginning of something much darker,” said Dara Lind in Vox.com. While Priebus was always a mainstream outsider in Trumpworld, Kelly “represents Trumpism at its most authentic”—he has repeatedly echoed the president’s belief that the U.S. is “under attack” from terrorists, gangs, and immigrants. Kelly’s promotion, coupled with Trump’s ramping up of culture-war dog whistles like advising cops to rough up suspects, suggests the president is returning to his core campaign strategy: “telling people to be afraid.”
With Kelly in charge, we will find out “whether a Trump White House can be functional,” said Jonathan Swan in Axios.com. The new chief of staff “has been granted unprecedented authority (for Trump), is revered by all internally, and has no dog in the factional wars in the West Wing.” If Kelly can’t turn things around, this administration may be a lost cause.
Illustration by Howard McWilliam. Cover photos from Newscom, Reuters, AP