The conventional wisdom was that Nick Ayers, a top member of Vice President Mike Pence’s team, would replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff. The White House had reportedly already prepared a press statement announcing Ayers’ new gig – right before he turned down the job.
By some accounts, other top contenders aren’t interested, either. Politico’s Nancy Cook reported overnight that the list is “shrinking by the hour.”
It’s worth understanding why.
One of my favorite stories about Kelly was published in August 2017, about five weeks into the retired general’s tenure in the West Wing. The Washington Post noted at the time that Kelly had taken some steps to control the flow of information and access to Trump. The president not only hated the new system, he resorted to reaching out to some of his more provocative associates “from his personal phone when Kelly is not around.”
It was a simple anecdote that pointed to a larger truth: the White House chief of staff had some ideas about bringing order and discipline to the West Wing, but Trump made sure those ideas failed.
It was an untenable dynamic that didn’t work and is now coming to an ignoble end.
President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that his chief of staff John Kelly would be leaving the position by the end of the year. […]
“John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We will announce who will be taking John’s place,” Trump said, adding that there might be an interim chief of staff. “I appreciate his service very much.”
The announcement itself was emblematic of the chaotic conditions in the West Wing. Four months ago, Kelly agreed to remain at his post through the 2020 election. When that arrangement failed, according to the New York Times, the president and Kelly agreed to a schedule in which the departing chief of staff “would break his own news on Monday, announcing his exit to senior White House staff members.”
Trump, as usual, had other ideas.
Imagine being a contender for Kelly’s job and watching events like these unfold.
When Kelly took the reins in the West Wing, it was widely assumed that the retired general, following a brief stint at the Secretary of Homeland Security, would command the respect Reince Priebus never enjoyed, and would be in a position to instill a degree of professionalism to the Trump circus.
Kelly’s failures now appear obvious, and by any fair measure, unavoidable. The problems plaguing this White House have little to do with the occupant in the chief of staff’s office and everything to do with the occupant in the Oval Office.
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser recently described this as “the worst-run White House of modern times,” which seems more than fair, but which can’t be placed entirely at Kelly’s feet. Trump is, in a rather literal sense, uncontrollable. Every attempt to instill discipline and order was undermined by President Chaos down the hall.
Or put another way, Kelly failed at a job in which no one could succeed.
But that’s not to say he departs as a sympathetic figure. Like so many of those who begin their associations with Trump with healthy reputations, Kelly exits the stage with his reputation and stature shredded by his work in this White House. Not only did the departing chief of staff struggle in his principal responsibilities, he also took a series of controversial steps of his own that cast Kelly in a deeply unflattering light.
Earlier this year, for example, he made needlessly offensive comments about immigrants and their capacity to assimilate. As regular readers may recall, this came on the heels of revelations about Kelly’s role in the Rob Porter scandal, in which Trump’s chief of staff was less than honest about his knowledge of the allegations against his aide.
That story followed Kelly’s suggestion that some Dreamers are “lazy” immigrants. And that story followed Kelly’s highly dubious calls to the Justice Department, in which he reportedly conveyed the president’s “expectations” to federal law enforcement officials.
That came on the heels of an interview in which Kelly made some very strange comments about the Civil War. And that followed an incident in which Kelly lied about a House Democrat and refused to apologize.
Who exactly would look back at Kelly’s tenure and say, “How can I get that job?”
Postscript: Nearly seven years ago, Trump wrote on Twitter, “3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why [Barack Obama] can’t manage to pass his agenda.”
First, it’s “chiefs of staff,” not “chief of staffs.” Second, Obama governed quite well. And third, Trump will now have three chiefs of staff in two years, not three.