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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 on February 2, 2018.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP - Getty Images

Who's left in the White House to limit Trump when he's 'spun up'?

John Kelly said he'd intervene when Trump would get "spun up" and bark irresponsible orders. Who has that job now?


In September 2018, the New York Times published a striking anonymous op-ed written by "a senior official in the Trump administration," which characterized Donald Trump as an ignorant and erratic leader, unfit for leadership, whose decisions needed to be contained and curtailed by those around him.

But, the author suggested, the public need not panic, because there were guardrails in place. There were, the op-ed added, "many" officials in the Trump administration who were "working diligently" to hamper "his worst inclinations."

As questions continue to swirl around why the president authorized an airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani -- and why the president and his team can't keep their stories straight -- there's a related question about whether there are still "many" officials in the Trump administration who are "working diligently" to hamper "his worst inclinations."

The Washington Post reported overnight on the White House national security team and its reluctance to "curb" Trump's decisions, and the article highlighted a dynamic that existed when former Gen. John Kelly served as Trump's chief of staff.

Kelly ... regularly told military officials that he wanted to talk to Trump before they actually carried out one of his orders and sometimes told them to hold off. For example, when Trump ordered the United States to leave NATO, or U.S. troops to leave the Middle East in late 2017, senior intelligence and military officials were brought in to change his mind.

"He'd get spun up, and if you bought some time, you could get him calmed down, and then explain to him what his decision might do," said a former senior administration official.

I think I know where Kelly was going with this. He was describing a governing dynamic in which an amateur president would throw a tantrum, bark orders, and cause some confusion among those whose job it is to follow a president's directives. In his capacity as White House chief of staff, Kelly -- who has an incentive to make himself look as good as possible -- made it sound as if he played the role of cooling saucer, letting U.S. military officials know that Trump's orders weren't actual orders when he'd "get spun up."

But Kelly's description isn't altogether reassuring.

For one thing, if Kelly's description is accurate, this isn't how a responsible White House is supposed to function. There's a chain of command in the United States, and when a president gives orders to military leaders, they're not supposed to go to the chief of staff to determine whether the orders are real and legitimate, or the random piques of a president whose emotions routinely get the better of him.

For another, is there anyone left on Team Trump playing this role?

As unsettling and undemocratic as it was to think a White House team found it necessary to obstruct their unfit boss, is it worse to think the guardrails are gone and the president is surrounded by officials who fail to challenge him, even when he's "spun up"?

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