White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, I’ll grant you, has accomplished something. Gone are buffoonish characters such as Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka. Stephen K. Bannon is gone, too, although his xenophobic sidekick, Stephen Miller, remains. We see less of Kellyanne “Alternative Facts” Conway on the air. President Trump has not yet fired special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But beyond that, things are arguably worse than ever.
For starters, Trump’s Cabinet — with the exception of his defense secretary, his ambassador to the United Nations and his national security adviser — is perhaps the worst in modern history. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson (does he still work at the State Department?) has lost the confidence of his department, Congress and allies. He seems intent on destroying one of our most important Cabinet departments. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is a climate-change denier who spends taxpayer money on a soundproof booth. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, seemingly unaware that his post is not the place for political hackery, is no longer a credible economic voice. He manages to sound nuttier and more dishonest on tax reform than even members of Congress. (Tax cuts will make money! Uh-huh.) Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney blew whatever credibility he had hawking a ridiculous budget.
Then we have Trump’s own Travelgate. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, when he is not sabotaging Obamacare, managed to rack up more than $400,000 on chartered flights. Politico reports that he is not alone:
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides have taken several flights on private or military aircraft, including a $12,000 charter plane to take him to events in his hometown in Montana and private flights between two Caribbean islands, according to documents and a department spokeswoman.
Zinke is at least the fourth senior member of the Trump administration to have used non-commercial planes at taxpayer expense, along with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and HHS Secretary Tom Price. President Donald Trump has fumed at Price’s pricey travel, and Democrats say the revelations demonstrate a cavalier attitude by Cabinet members toward excessive spending.
In short, Kelly needs to persuade Trump to clean out the sleaze and the deadwood from his Cabinet. He cannot salvage his sinking presidency with second- and third-rate people.
In addition, Kelly doesn’t do the substance of policy — and that’s a problem. Trump’s health-care gambit died, and now his ludicrous, half-baked tax plan has arguably set back rather than advanced support for tax reform. For no good reason, Attorney General Jeff Sessions lured him into rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (supported by about about three-quarters of voters in some polls) without having a replacement bill ready, thus putting the White House and Republicans on defense. Trump’s latest travel ban is incoherent and unnecessary. No wonder he has accomplished no legislative goals; his ideas are an embarrassment. Maybe better advisers and Cabinet secretaries will produce better policies, but what they now are peddling is ill-conceived, unpopular and irresponsible.
Third, Kelly has been unable to keep Trump away from Twitter, from idiotic culture-war fights or from attacking fellow Republicans. Obsessing about the NFL left Trump open to charges of neglecting Puerto Rico. Spouting moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters permanently stained his presidency and convinced a good deal of the country that he is a bigot. He won’t stick to the script on North Korea, thereby elevating tensions, freaking out allies and heightening the risk of Pyongyang’s misjudgment. A very large percentage of the country is convinced that Trump is unfit to serve. Kelly should realize by now that you cannot end White House chaos without restraining the president, something Kelly is unwilling or unable to do.
At this point, Trump needs Kelly more than Kelly needs the president. Kelly should therefore make clear that he can no longer help this presidency unless Trump upgrades his Cabinet; stops putting out junk policies and plans so indefensible that his aides must lie about them; and once and for all gives up the undisciplined tweeting and vicious race-baiting. If Trump refuses, Kelly should leave. That might go a long way toward convincing congressional Republicans that this presidency is unsalvageable and the country would be infinitely better off with a President Pence.