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Opinion The love affair with John Kelly won’t end well

President Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, has brought discipline to the White House, sometimes to the frustration of Trump. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Remember the cheers that greeted the announcement that John F. Kelly would replace Reince Priebus as chief of staff? Finally we’ll get a buttoned-down Oval Office! He’ll bring discipline! Another grown-up! Kelly wound up burning his credibility over the death of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson in Niger and the president’s condolence call. He has reinforced President Trump’s worst instincts on immigration and demonstrated no finesse in trying to work with a coequal branch of government. His contempt for the media has rivaled Trump’s. (As a result, perhaps, he never grasped the importance of nor prepared for the release of Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.”) Trump is as chaotic as ever, as unpopular as ever and as at-risk as ever (if not more so) from the special counsel.

Well, as with so much of the wishful thinking about Trump that conservatives engage in — (If I had a dime for every time I heard “turning the bend,” “pivot,” “He became president today,” etc …)  — the reality of Kelly never matched his billing. It’s hardly the only instance in which breathless anticipation among conservative well-wishers met with disappointment.The hope is that this or that adviser will turn Trump into some better version of himself. It never happens — or at least not for very long. The real Trump (erratic, ignorant, racist, confused) comes to resent whomever is sent in to manage him. He rebels, and then the adviser brags he has saved the day (Trump was “uninformed” about the wall during the campaign, Kelly said). Naturally, Trump then fires the person. He wants lackeys, sycophants and nothing else. He wants full credit for everything. He refuses to stop tweeting, attacking, misrepresenting facts and undercutting his top advisers.

So, now it seems, Kelly may be headed for the same fate as Stephen K. Bannon, according to Gabriel Sherman: “Donald Trump’s relationship with John Kelly, his chief of staff, fraught from the beginning, may finally have gone past the point of no return. Two prominent Republicans in frequent contact with the White House told me that Trump has discussed choosing Kelly’s successor in recent days, asking a close friend what he thought about David Urban, a veteran Washington lobbyist and political operative who helped engineer Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania.” (But good news — Ivanka Trump is in charge of the search! I’m sure it will all work out.) His departure is not thought to be imminent, however.

Trump was understandably angry when Kelly said his views during the campaign on the wall were “uninformed” and had since evolved. Trump swatted such talk down with a blunt tweet. “Trump has increasingly been chafing at the media narrative that he needs Kelly to instill discipline on his freewheeling management style. ‘The more Kelly plays up that he’s being the adult in the room—that it’s basically combat duty and he’s serving the country—that kind of thing drives Trump nuts,’ a Republican close to the White House said,” Sherman writes. “In recent days, Trump has fumed to friends that Kelly acts like he’s running the government while Trump tweets and watches television. ‘I’ve got another nut job here who thinks he’s running things,’ Trump told one friend, according to a Republican briefed on the call. ” Umm, but does he watch TV while Kelly runs things? Shh, don’t say it out loud. In truth, no semi-competent person with a modicum of integrity is going to last very long — or take the job in the first place — in this White House.

Kelly has proved the critics of his appointment right. Putting a flock of military and newly ex-military men in high positions in the White House deprives the president of advisers with a deft political touch. Generals and admirals are used to barking orders, not schmoozing and cajoling to win over congressmen.

Moreover, these military appointments blur the line between military and civilian leadership. Eliot Cohen’s critique at the time Kelly was named has held up exceptionally well:

There was a reason why he spent 42 years on active duty rather than run for mayor of Boston. He probably already knows, but if not he will soon learn, that he will be as dispensable as his predecessor, that Trump hates any of his subordinates being too powerful or too visible. And worst of all, he will soon find himself wrestling with the moral corruption that being close to this man entails. You cannot work directly for Trump while adhering to a code of honesty, integrity, and lawfulness. Sooner or later Kelly will have to defend the White House’s jabber about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “witch hunts.” He will have to ascribe to Trump virtues that he does not possess, and deny the moral lapses and quite possibly the crimes that he has committed.
There is one further reason to find this appointment depressing. It contributes to the continuing decay of American civil-military relations. . . . [I]t is inappropriate to have so many generals in policy-making positions; it is profoundly wrong to have a president regard the military as a constituency, and it is corrupting to have the Republican Party, such as it is, act as though generals have if not a monopoly then at least dominant market share in the qualities of executive ability and patriotism. It is unwise to have higher-level positions in the hands of officials who have openly expressed disdain for Congress—now a dangerously weak branch of government.

Would Kelly’s replacement do any better? Probably not. No one is going to make Trump into an orderly, conscientious and decisive leader. No one is going to change the heart of a 71-year-old narcissist, instill appropriate work habits or teach him to respect others.

The voters erroneously concluded that Trump was a brilliant executive with solid management skills. Unfortunately, unlike a CEO who would have been fired a long time ago if he behaved as Trump has, Trump will be there for a while. Voters will pay the price for their mistake until the day he leaves office — and perhaps beyond when one considers the damage Trump and his crowd have done to democratic norms and institutions. It will be an ignominious end to Kelly’s career in public life.

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