The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kelly can’t fix Trump’s biggest problems

President Trump tweeted out that his former Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly is replacing Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff on July 28. (Video: Victoria Walker, Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly can try to prevent staff members from walking into the Oval Office or from sending the president materials without going through Kelly. The chief of staff can try to improve the quality of the information President Trump relies on. As necessary as these steps may be, they are only half-measures. The problems that afflict the administration run deeper than office protocol.

First and foremost, the alt-right, nationalistic elements of the administration cannot peacefully coexist with mainstream Republicans who understand the threat posed by Russia. We saw last week the faction favorable to Stephen K. Bannon — aided by Russian social media bots — attack national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Jake Tapper and Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, explained:

TAPPER: The nationalist wing of President Trump’s political coalition has been waging a full-bore information campaign, sometimes misinformation campaign, to remove Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster from his position as President Trump’s national security adviser.
“The New York Times” is reporting that the top hashtag among 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations on thought was #fireMcMaster.
What can you tell us about this Russian influence operation?
SCHIFF: Well, you know, we saw this during the campaign, that the Russians use their paid social media trolls, they use bots in order to push things as part of their active measures campaign, in that sense to try to influence the election, in this sense to try to potentially influence the firing of a top Trump campaign — or not campaign, but Trump administration official, the national security adviser.

Simply put, Kelly cannot expect a functional White House with two warring factions, one of which is inappropriately sympathetic to a hostile foreign power. This would be untenable in any administration but is especially fraught with danger in an administration accused of cooperating with Russia during the election and continuing to be overly solicitous to our most formidable international rival (to the point of denying our own intelligence community’s uniform conclusion that Russia meddled in our election). The backbiting, leaking and bizarre foreign policy tilt won’t end until Bannon and his cohorts are removed.

While the White House is pledging to crack down on "leakers," there are ways to disclose information and concerns lawfully. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Leaking is a negative result of Trump’s preference for multiple power centers but is also a reflection of him personally. Kelly should impress upon Trump the distinction between embarrassing leaks from within the political hacks in the White House and leaks of classified national security. The former is not illegal; political leaks within the West Wing are a function of the president’s failure to earn the respect and confidence of aides, his inability to forge unity in service of a common purpose. This is not a national security problem so much as a leadership problem. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein explained on Sunday that leak investigations only go after people who violate national security laws. (“The attorney general has been very clear that we’re after the leakers, not the journalist. We’re after the people who are committing crime.”) That may come as news to the president, who seems to expect the Justice Department to solve his leadership deficit and the problems of his dysfunctional White House.

Likewise, the willingness of permanent civil service employees to reveal wrongdoing within their departments (whether at the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency or elsewhere) will continue to embarrass the administration so long as underperforming, ill-prepared secretaries and senior advisers remain at war with the mission of their departments and agencies. A functional administration requires competent senior people who inspire confidence. A wholesale housecleaning of the Cabinet is necessary.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Moving on to other fundamental problems, Kelly’s organizational discipline will not solve the administration’s honesty deficit. When Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway lie to the faces of reporters, and then refuse to acknowledge they have lied, the administration as a whole loses credibility and trust. They are scrambling to make excuses for the president, but the excuses simply intensify the sense that nothing the administration puts out should be taken seriously. Kelly may not be able to stop Trump from fabricating, but he certainly can keep Conway off the Sunday shows, where, as she did on “This Week,” she is caught incessantly dissembling and changing the topic. If the president wants to justify inconsistent stories, fictionalized phone calls and blatant untruths, that’s up to him. Advisers and Cabinet officials should comment on policy, messaging and agenda — and simply decline to divine the meanings of Trump’s utterances. (“I don’t know” or “You’ll have to ask him” are satisfactory responses.)

And finally, Kelly cannot pretend, as his boss does, that the Russia investigation is a “hoax” or “fake news.” Multiple officials and former campaign officials have not told the truth about contacts with Russia. The president’s campaign chief, older son and son-in-law took a meeting for the purpose of receiving help from the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton. The president fired the FBI director and concocted a phony explanation for it. These are inescapable facts, and potential legal landmines. Again, Kelly can make meetings run on time and straighten out the paper flow, but the fate of the presidency to a large extent rests in the hands of Robert S. Mueller III. Trump can seal his own fate by firing Mueller, but neither Kelly nor Trump can control a fleet of prosecutors, congressional investigators, numerous witnesses and multiple grand juries.

In sum, Kelly can improve White House discipline but until he is empowered to can Bannon, prompt the president to replace incompetent secretaries and senior advisers with seasoned hands, instill an atmosphere where truth and integrity are paramount and get past the scrutiny of the special counsel, his changes will be limited and wholly insufficient.