From the Left



Trump and Kelly deserve one another

Ruth Marcus on

WASHINGTON -- In the spirit of the Olympics, it has long been clear who takes the gold medal for worst performer in the White House. (Hint: his office has no corners.) Now, it's time to award the silver medal to an unexpected choice: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Kelly's triumph, such as it is, comes after serious contenders were eliminated from the competition: 24-day national security adviser Michael Flynn, who barely had time to inflict damage, and adviser Stephen Bannon, who did.

That leaves, somewhat surprisingly, Kelly. He came in as the supposed grown-up in the room, the competent four-star who, if he couldn't corral Trump's worst instincts and behaviors, at least could impose some trickle-down discipline.

Which Kelly, by all accounts, has done. But he has also reaped the whirlwind he was supposed to calm, most explosively with his relentlessly obtuse handling of domestic abuse allegations against one of his most trusted aides, former staff secretary Rob Porter. Remarkably among the Trump administration's unceasing string of problems, this one was not Trump-inflicted -- rather it was inflicted by the very staffer who was supposed to stop the president from self-harm.

Of course, Trump being Trump, he eventually got in on the act himself, with a typically tone-deaf comment that expressed zero concern for Porter's ex-wives and an excess of solicitude for their abuser. "It's obviously a very tough time for him," Trump said of Porter. "We hope that he will have a wonderful career."

It is the job of the chief of staff to head off moments like this, not set the stage for them.

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"Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room, and by the person he picks as his chief of staff," historian Richard Norton Smith told Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency."

If so, Trump's first definition, in the person of Reince Priebus, was as an executive who preferred to surround himself by toadies prepared to pay the price of slathering Trump with praise and constitutionally incapable of standing up to him. The most vivid illustration came during Trump's first full cabinet meeting, last June, when Priebus gushed, "we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people." That devotion proved insufficient, with Priebus ousted the next month.

Trump's beef with Priebus, as The Washington Post reported on the occasion of his firing, was that Priebus was "weak, weak, weak." Kelly's allure, for Trump chief of staff 2.0, was his standing as one of "my generals," as Trump likes to call them. Just as Priebus revealed Trump's insatiable desire for stroking, Kelly illustrated his unsettling attraction to strongmen.

Chief of staff is a thankless, impossible job for every president. Trump makes the chief's task Herculean. So it's hard to blame Kelly for implementing his own version of the Serenity Prayer, and accepting that there was no way to control the presidential Twitter feed.


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