Retired Marine General John Kelly wades into the West Wing Monday ostensibly with the task of imposing order and halting Trump palace intrigue that’s reached Borgia levels of betrayal. That mission is a foregone failure.
Admirers of the new White House chief of staff praise the Boston native’s discipline and refusal to “suffer idiots and fools,” predicting he’ll get the president on track if anyone can. There are two problems with this theory.
First, Kelly has demonstrated a willingness to ingratiate himself to Trump instead of delivering straight talk about setting aside petty obsessions and focusing on policy. Remember when Trump threw himself a national pity party at the Coast Guard Academy, whining, “No politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly”? After Trump was presented a ceremonial sword, Kelly joked, “You can use that on the press,” to Trump’s approving laughter. Kelly’s line reflects either disrespect for a democratic press or sycophantic willingness to curry favor by encouraging one of the president’s most distracting and least productive obsessions.
Second, no chief of staff can impose order on a president who doesn’t want it. Trump thrives on being the star of his own reality TV drama — currently known as American democracy — fueled by cutthroat competition among his supplicants.
The White House, according to Trump’s flavor-of-the-month pet pitbull of a new communications chief Anthony Scaramucci, is a “Hunger Games”-like dystopia of warring factions figuratively engaging in unprintable obscene acts while backstabbing and “front-stabbing” in a death spiral of elimination that makes “Survivor” look fun in comparison. Trump revels in gladiator politics: release rivals in the arena and see who survives.
Trump has shown his subordinates are forced to utter loyalty oaths at Cabinet meetings and perform debasing acts of fealty, after which he loses respect and discards them.
Last week, chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer, and first assistant Michael Short — who dutifully regurgitated false figures about inaugural crowds and phantom voters, among other “alternative facts” and fantasies — were rewarded by being kicked off the island.
In a Washington Post anecdote that evokes a tinpot despot’s throne room, Trump once summoned his last chief of staff for a humiliating task: to kill a fly circling the president’s head.
Trump sold himself to voters as a boss man, but has demonstrated he makes terrible personnel decisions or can’t manage.
In six months, he has fired or accepted resignations from his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, national security advisor, deputy national security advisor, FBI director, deputy attorney general, communications director, press secretary, senior assistant press secretary, and legal team spokesman. And he’s denounced his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump appears to be trying to force out.
Trump — who attended military school but ducked out of serving in Vietnam — boasted of knowing “more than the generals,” yet has stacked his administration with brass like Kelly. Trump may enjoy their manly looks more than their advice, though. He didn’t consult them before tweeting his ban on transgender troops, according to Pentagon officials, and we don’t know if he’ll listen to Kelly either.
I’m not convinced Trump has a mission for Kelly other than enabling the president to remain a bull in the china shop of our democratic norms. In six months, Kelly too may be gone.
“The fish stinks from the head down,” Trump’s new golden boy Scaramucci said last week. He was referring to the last chief of staff, who’s now history, but it was a rare moment of unintended clarity. Something is rotten at the White House, and tone is always set at the top.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.