John Kelly
Shutterstock

Society

It Doesn't Matter Who Replaces John Kelly

When we remember John Kelly as Donald Trump’s chief of staff, we will remember him as a man tortured. As the man standing in the corner of the golden Trump Tower lobby, staring hard into the ground as his boss gave the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville a pass. Or as the person at cabinet meetings with his head invariably buried in his hands.

Kelly was tapped after Trump’s first Chief of Staff Reince Priebus proved unable to keep the president from tweeting outrageous conspiracy theories, insulting political rivals and binge-watching Fox News. And there’s no evidence that the second man in the post had any more success. 

Unfortunately for Priebus and Kelly and his eventual successor, the chief of staff seems to be a title in name only. There are, of course, outside chiefs of staff, people like Sean Hannity, to whom Trump listens and solicits advice, but there is no sign that there’s any way to temper the president from inside the White House.

And so it’s no surprise that nearly everybody rumored to be in consideration for the role of the tortured man has politely turned it down. Mick Mulvaney, who currently heads the Office of Management and Budget, quietly let it be known that he was happier overseeing an agency less likely to drive him into insanity. Nick Ayers—chief of staff for Mike Pence—also pulled his name away from consideration, saying that he wants to return to Georgia to spend time with his family. A political operator leaving public service to spend time with family is often interpreted as a sign of defeat (as is the case with Paul Ryan) or the waiting out of an uncomfortable political moment (as is the case with Nikki Haley).

The names that are now being auditioned are figures with the fonder days of their political careers behind them.

In Washington, we are always chasing power. In this town you routinely meet Republican operatives who have been in every Grand Old Party administration since Reagan or Democrats who have served since Bill Clinton. The chief of staff role may be the crown jewel of a life in Washington because it promises power, the ability to whisper advice to the descendant of Lincoln and Kennedy and Roosevelt—to be among the men responsible for starting or ending a war. But in the Trump Administration, that promise of power is absent. His chiefs of staff can whisper or shout, there’s nobody listening. 

This president has often had difficulty filling positions in his White House and as his presidency wears on, that has become an even more taxing process. He seems to have mostly gotten his preferred candidates at the beginning of the tenure. In late 2016, Trump Tower swelled with figures hoping to tie themselves into the new administration. It was a bizarre transition period with reporters camped out in Manhattan eager to learn who would be named to cabinet posts. Everybody wanted to be secretary of state or UN ambassador or chief of staff, and Trump catered to the story by treating the candidates in the same way that he auditioned potential business partners on The Apprentice.
That is no longer the case. 

The next chief of staff will endure President Trump’s obsession with Robert Mueller’s probe. And, even worse, the next chief of staff will endure Robert Mueller’s report, which creeps closer to the Oval Office with each indictment. That person will be forced to watch as the president is required, for the first time in his tenure, to battle a majority in Congress that is opposed to him. Walking through Capitol Hill, you can almost feel the Democrats in the shadows of the grey marble, waiting to unfurl investigations into everything from the president’s tax returns to his mistresses. There will be no quarter.

Walking through Capitol Hill, you can almost feel the Democrats in the shadows of the grey marble, waiting to unfurl investigations into everything from the president’s tax returns to his mistresses.

The names that are now being auditioned are figures with the fonder days of their political careers behind them. There is former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who was a Garden State favorite before leaving his office in disgrace. Or Congressman Mark Meadows, who chaired the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus, but with Republicans in the minority, the power of the formerly threatening rogue caucus is diminished.

On Tuesday, the president tweeted that he has more than 10 people who want the chief of staff job, writing “why wouldn’t someone want one of the truly great and meaningful jobs in Washington?” He tagged the reports saying otherwise as “fake news,” and we’ve come to learn that when the president cries fake news it’s generally news that is very real and that he doesn’t like. 

There will be somebody named as the next tortured man, some figure that you will probably see creeping through Washington with his head slinking. He will dodge questions from the press or, if he is a sycophant, he will lie with blistering frequency, and we will all watch him and wonder what level of masochism drives a man into the White House’s top West Wing job.

Profiles

Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas
Writer, contributor
View Profile