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Chiefs of staff to George W. Bush, Obama say they’d tell Trump to stop tweeting

From left, former Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, and Institute for Education founder Kathy Kemper. (Kevin Allen for IFE)

Two former White House chiefs of staff say President Trump’s Twitter habit has been distracting at best and destructive at worst — and if he were their boss, they would tell him to knock it off.

Josh Bolten, who was chief of staff to President George W. Bush, and Denis McDonough, who held the position in the Obama administration, both said presidential tweeting is a powerful tool and is likely here to stay — in this administration and beyond.  The pair appeared at a Wednesday night salon sponsored by the Institute for Education at the Belgian ambassador’s residence, where they agreed on a surprising number of topics, given their partisan differences. Like those tweets …

Bolten, whose stint as top White House aide predated the age of social media, called Trump’s tweets “political gasoline,” particularly in the arena of foreign policy, which has traditionally been handled with excruciatingly careful messaging (i.e., no talk of the relative size of nuclear buttons).

Bolten acknowledged that Trump probably wouldn’t take the advice to lay off but suggested that if he were Trump’s chief, he might ask for the tweeter in chief to at least give him a few minutes to vet the missives. “I would say, ‘In every case, Mr. President, give me a chance, give me 20 minutes to review every tweet you want to send and give me a chance to get that to the NSA, to the economic adviser, to somebody who should see it before it goes so that it won’t cause confusion and disrupt policy in a way that will undermine all the other great stuff you’re doing, Mr. President.”

(Wait, was that the sound of John Kelly, the current CoS, laughing?)

McDonough concurred about the potential of Trump’s tweets to upend foreign policy but said he worried they could also take a heavy toll closer to home. “When it comes to questions about national unity, national purpose, addressing very real concerns about race in this country,” McDonough said, “it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the president’s tweets at walking back a lot of hard-fought progress.”

Still, both acknowledged that the tradition of presidents using Twitter isn’t going anywhere. McDonough noted that it’s a way for a president, who often feels isolated in the rarefied air of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., to break through the bubble of aides and other filters to “speak directly in your language to your people.”

In the audience, a dozen or so ambassadors — whose job includes explaining Trump’s tweets to leaders around the world — were listening intently.

There was plenty of shoptalk and behind-the-scenes details about the job of White House chief of staff — both men said it involved a lot of entering the Oval Office to deliver bad news to the boss, a task that no one else on staff could do. (“Good news usually found its way in there somehow,” McDonough said. “But the bad news always waited up for you.”)

Interestingly, both men also said that Kelly had not been in touch with either of them to commiserate or to seek advice. Bolten, though, suggested that Trump’s top guy could be forgiven for not seeking out his predecessors, considering his hands are a tad full. “John Kelly is fighting a different kind of fire every day,” he said, suggesting that perhaps the retired general should be earning combat pay. “Under the hardest circumstances of any of us who have had that job.”