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On his way out, Kelly wants credit for steps Trump did not take

White House officials who managed to hide the matches from Donald Trump aren't in a position to credibly argue that they've accomplished something impressive.
US Chief of Staff John Kelly looks on as US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC...

As White House Chief of Staff John Kelly wraps up his unfortunate tenure at Donald Trump's side, the retired general spoke to the L.A. Times about his experiences in the West Wing. In the process, he raised a familiar argument about the importance of preventing this president from being even worse than he appears.

In the phone interview Friday, Kelly defended his rocky tenure, arguing that it is best measured by what the president did not do when Kelly was at his side. [...]Kelly's supporters say he stepped in to block or divert the president on dozens of matters large and small. They credit him, in part, for persuading Trump not to pull U.S. forces out of South Korea, or withdraw from NATO, as he had threatened.

We've heard this argument enough times that it's become a curious staple of the Trump era. The president, we're told, has repeatedly wanted to take dangerous and radical steps, and we should be thankful to his aides for steering him in less outrageous directions.

In mid-April 2017, just three months into this presidency, Politico had a report on the internal turmoil in the White House. "If you're an adviser to him, your job is to help him at the margins," one Trump confidante said. "To talk him out of doing crazy things."

Four months later, Axios had a related piece, citing a half-dozen "dismayed" senior administration officials, exasperated by the president's dangerous instincts. "You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill," one said.

In September 2018, the New York Times published an instantly infamous piece from an anonymous "senior official" in the Trump administration who apparently wanted to assure the American public that staffers do what they can "to steer the administration in the right direction until -- one way or another -- it's over."

The author described a "two-track presidency" in which the unhinged president goes in one direction, while responsible adults around him quietly steer the administration in another.

The underlying sentiment echoes what Kelly told the L.A. Times: it's best to measure this White House by what Trump "did not do," and not just what he actually did.

We occasionally heard similar defenses of John Boehner's tenure as Speaker of the House: his job was basically to try to keep a lid on a radicalized House Republican conference, which was prepared to be far more militant, but which the Ohio congressman managed to contain -- most of the time.

I'm not contesting the accuracy of the argument, especially as it relates to this White House. In fact, I have no doubts that John Kelly has had to intervene, on multiple occasions, to stop Trump from making genuinely dangerous decisions.

The trouble, however, is seeing this as some kind of positive development, deserving of praise. At its core, the question is one over standards: where should the bar for governmental success be set?

Parents with unruly children don't generally brag, "I stopped my kids from setting our home on fire. Where's my Parent of the Year award?" Similarly, White House officials who managed to hide the matches from Donald Trump aren't in a position to credibly argue that they've accomplished something impressive.