Readers of Spoiler Alerts might be aware that, on the side, I have been curating a Twitter thread about the myriad ways that President Trump’s own staff appears to treat him or talk about him like a toddler. It starts here:
— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) April 25, 2017
Some commentators have pushed back on the toddler analogy. In 2015, however, Trump himself told a biographer that he feels that his emotional temperament has been unchanged since he was 6 years old. I’ve found enough examples of Trump’s toddler-like behavior in the thread for FiveThirtyEight to do a big data analysis of it if it chooses to do so. So maybe the toddler analogy has some analytic bite.
[Secretary of Defense James] Mattis and Kelly also agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The official insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the administration’s internal dynamics.
Clearly Kelly and Mattis seem to feel that the president of the United States needs adult supervision. This raises an interesting question: Can Kelly structure the White House to make Donald Trump grow up a little bit? In the words of “Bull Durham,” can Kelly “mature” the kid?
The initial reports have been encouraging. Consider this from Axios’s Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan:
Gen. John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, has taken control in dramatic fashion, and is already imposing unmistakable signs of order after just a few days on the job.
Even POTUS appears to be trying to impress his four-star handler, picking up his game by acting sharper in meetings and even rattling off stats….
The most consequential workplace in America has been one of the most dysfunctional. General Kelly took an instantly assertive tack, and some of the overt shenanigans stopped overnight.
Kelly has also made sure that people who bring out the worst in Trump have exited the building. To use the language of child care, Kelly got rid of some bullies. He fired Trump mini-me Anthony Scaramucci on his first day. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has taken advantage of Kelly’s appointment to finally clean house within the NSC staff.
Kelly has also helped ensure that Trump is not exposed to scary ghost stories, as Politico’s Josh Dawsey reports:
Since starting this week, Kelly has told aides that anyone briefing the president needs to show him the information first. The Trump West Wing tradition of aides dropping off articles on the president’s desk — then waiting for him to react, with a screaming phone call or a hastily scheduled staff meeting, must stop. He will not accept aides walking into the Oval Office and telling the president information without permission — or without the information being vetted.
“He basically said, ‘The president has to get good briefings, he has to get good intelligence,’ ” one senior White House official said. “We have to be putting him in a position to make good decisions.”
In the West Wing, many of the president’s most controversial decisions have been attributed to bad information, partially because the president is easily swayed by the last person he has talked to — or the last thing he has read.
These are all good steps!! Having a
new daddy authority figure like Kelly emerge might make Trump more disciplined and more eager to act like a big boy. Kelly has already managed to eliminate some bad seeds and bad information helping to make Trump act worse than he otherwise would.
So, is this the beginning of a new, more disciplined Trump? Nah, not likely.
First, even as all these positive stories emerged about Kelly’s influence today, consider Trump’s statement as he signed a Russia sanctions bill he did not want to sign but had no choice due to its overwhelming popularity in Congress. Here are the super-petulant parts:
The bill remains seriously flawed — particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate. Congress could not even negotiate a health-care bill after seven years of talking. By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together. The Framers of our Constitution put foreign affairs in the hands of the President. This bill will prove the wisdom of that choice …
I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.
This is the Toddler Trump that I have come to expect! It’s also unfortunately consistent with how he has behaved in other venues that require grown-up behavior, like speeches in front of Boy Scouts or national security meetings.
Even Kelly knows that there are limits to his ability to force Trump to grow up. According to Dawsey:
Kelly and senior West Wing officials don’t believe Trump will fully change. He is not going to stop tweeting, for example, and they expect him to keep dialing old friends in New York after hours — and that he will likely huddle with aides when Kelly is not around. Senior officials are likely to still give him articles to read without Kelly knowing. “He’s not under the impression he can tell Donald Trump, ‘Oh, you’re going to do it my way,’ ” one Kelly associate said. “He’s not delusional about it.”
As I noted a few months ago, “Trump is a mercurial guy.” His desire to impress Kelly is likely to fade. This will be particularly true the first time something bad happens and Trump blames Kelly for it.
One thing that could work to Kelly’s advantage, paradoxically, is how poorly Trump is polling right now. He’s polling really badly, according to Gallup, RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight. This will not put him into a good mood, but if this is a local nadir and he experiences a dead cat bounce, Kelly will be the beneficiary. Kelly might be able to advise Trump on how to think strategically and how to exercise power more effectively. That ain’t beanbag.
Still, toddlers are gonna toddler. Trump’s attempt to impress Kelly and behave like a big boy will fade after the first Twitter tantrum. It is just a question of when.