True or not, everything under President Trump feels like it has been more bumpy than for any of his predecessors in the modern era. His governing approach combines an unusual faith in his own intuition, a relative lack of interest in policy details and a penchant for demonizing his opponents, real and imagined. The president appears to judge his White House aides less on their governing expertise than on their compatibility with and loyalty to his deeply personal approach to the presidency.
So with the announcement that President Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, will step down at the end of the year, we all took it as just the latest round of White House chaos.
But actually, the modern presidency moves to recognizable rhythms. And this one, in some ways, has been no different. There is a season to govern, and one to campaign. The announcement about Mr. Kelly is the clearest sign yet that for Mr. Trump and his White House staff, the time to govern is winding down, and the presidential campaign is about to begin.
Governing and campaigning in the recent administrations are relatively distinct processes. The expertise a president requires from his staff to govern is not always the same skill set he needs for campaigning. The most effective campaign aides are adept at distilling complex issues into campaign slogans suitable for sound bites and bumper stickers, and at demonizing the opposition. Skills suitable for sound bites, digital ads and bumper stickers are assumed to be less useful in the White House, where policy expertise, patience and a willingness to work across the aisle are normally prerequisites for getting things done.
It is one thing to promise to Make America Great Again. It is another to recognize how to do so. To date, Mr. Trump appears less inclined than his predecessors to recognize the significance of that distinction; he governs as he campaigned.
Mr. Kelly’s rocky White House tenure as chief of staff illustrates this dynamic. President Trump hired him in July 2017 to bring order to a White House staff divided by factions. Reports detailed clashes among Mr. Trump’s campaign aides, led by the former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Mr. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka and Jared Kushner. Reince Priebus, the president’s first chief of staff, seemed unable to mediate these disputes, prompting the decision to replace him with Mr. Kelly. Soon after, Mr. Bannon left the White House, and over the course of the next several months Mr. Kelly eased additional campaign aides out — including the former “Celebrity Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman — while bringing some semblance of coherence to White House operations.
But the president never seemed fully comfortable with Mr. Kelly’s effort to take charge of the White House staff. Mr. Trump reportedly bristled at the perception that Mr. Kelly was too willing to take credit for the administration’s successes while criticizing Mr. Trump’s failings, as when the chief of staff indicated the president’s campaign statements on immigration and building a border wall were “uninformed.” For his part, Mr. Kelly’s often-intemperate remarks, as when he suggested that the Civil War occurred because of a failure to compromise, revealed a lack of political acumen.
As the former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta acknowledged, “John is a great Marine … but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.” Although Mr. Trump grudgingly tolerated Mr. Kelly’s political tone deafness and thinly veiled insubordination in return for bringing a semblance of discipline to White House operations, the shift in focus from governing to campaigning evidently has changed Mr. Trump’s calculation.
If this explains Mr. Kelly’s departure, it is consistent with the research I have conducted with the Brookings Institution scholar Kathryn Dunn Tenpas. We show that most modern White House staffs undergo a significant overhaul in the president’s third and fourth years in office in preparation for the re-election campaign. Although Mr. Kelly’s replacement has not been named, it is likely to be someone with the skills to run a White House in full campaign mode.
Given those demands, it was not surprising that one rumored replacement, Vice President’s Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, was the focus of the president’s search to replace Mr. Kelly. Mr. Ayers has experience in political consulting and is considered a potential candidate for office himself in Georgia.
But given the enormity of the tasks in the Trump White House, he has already reportedly turned down the job. Whoever it is, the new chief of staff will be dealing with a Democratically controlled House intent on using its oversight capability and the findings from the Mueller investigation as a possible basis for impeaching the president.
The new official, in any case, will be charged with two fundamental tasks shared by all chiefs of staff, regardless of season. That person must protect the president’s most precious asset — his time — while insuring that he is not isolated from the advisers whose expertise he relies on.
Under Mr. Trump, however, a president who brags about making “gut” decisions and who resists any attempt at management, the chief of staff’s task takes on greater urgency. How well the new chief performs may well determine the future of Mr. Trump’s presidency, his potential re-election and the nation he leads.
Matthew J. Dickinson is a professor of political science at Middlebury and the author of the forthcoming “The President and the White House Staff: People, Positions and Processes, 1945-2016.” He blogs at the Presidential Power.
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