Chris Whipple is the author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
“Congratulations, you’ve got the worst f---ing job in government.” That’s what James A. Baker III, President Ronald Reagan’s quintessential gatekeeper, tells every incoming White House chief of staff when asked for his advice. In the best of times, the position is so relentless and crushing, it cuts grown men down to size. “The White House chief of staff walks around with a target on his back and on his front,” says Baker. “Those aren’t the only parts,” adds Rahm Emanuel, who served under President Barack Obama.
“I used to be 6-foot-4,” says 5-foot-9 Ken Duberstein, Reagan’s chief during his final year in office. Baker, a smooth-as-silk Texas lawyer, found the job under Reagan so debilitating that when Treasury Secretary Donald Regan proposed swapping jobs in 1985, Baker leaped at the chance like it was a get-out-of-jail-free card. Decades later, Emanuel often made a point of showing off to visitors the leafy outdoor patio and cozy fireplace at opposite ends of his West Wing office. “These are nice,” he said. “Everything in between sucks .”
Those were the best of times for chiefs of staff, under presidents who both understood and valued the position. Under Trump, the job is exponentially more difficult — perhaps impossible. “Take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by 50,” Reince Priebus told me a few months after he was unceremoniously sacked as Trump’s first chief of staff — by tweet, while standing on an airport tarmac. Priebus was talking about the chaos and dysfunction that occur when a president confuses governing with campaigning, or running the 26th floor of Trump Tower. Instead of empowering his chief to get things done, Trump ignored and humiliated him. Once a rising star as Republican National Committee chairman, Priebus left with his reputation in tatters. I have been sharply critical of him in the past, but, in fairness, anyone serving this president should be graded on a curve. A friend of Priebus, incensed by the jabs thrown by his predecessors, says they can’t conceive of the unique challenges posed by Trump: “Give me a break. They couldn’t do it. After a week, they would be curled up in the corner in a fetal position.”
The job has been even more damaging to the reputation of John F. Kelly. The highly respected retired four-star general was empowered in a way that Priebus never was and, for a while, imposed discipline. But he was arrogant, imperious and politically inept. (Kelly’s unhinged tirade against Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) showed that he shared his boss’s tendency to tell flagrant untruths without apology.)
Far from serving as a moderating influence on Trump’s authoritarian impulses, Kelly often reinforced the president’s worst partisan instincts. Partly as a result, the White House has been in thrall to ideologues who have shown they have no idea how to govern.
No wonder few qualified candidates seem to want the job under Trump. The irony — and the tragedy — is that no president has ever been more in need of a competent chief of staff. This White House is headed toward a world of trouble: emboldened Democrats controlling the House; special counsel Robert S. Mueller III closing in; and a tough reelection battle looming — if the president avoids impeachment and removal from office. Trump needs a wartime consigliere, preferably with political savvy. But more important, he needs a chief who knows the difference between campaigning — which is demonizing and dividing — and governing, which is building coalitions and striking deals in the country’s best interest. Trump needs to find his own equivalent of James Baker: experienced, grounded, comfortable in his or her own skin, confident enough to walk into the Oval Office, close the door and tell the president what he does not want to hear.
The 45th president is not the first to arrive in office full of hubris, thinking he’s the smartest person in the room. Most presidents get over that. After a year-and-a-half in office, with his agenda stalled, President Bill Clinton empowered a new chief of staff, Leon Panetta, to whip his administration into shape. Despite his shaky start, Clinton cruised to reelection in 1996. It took Jimmy Carter 2½ years to realize that he had to appoint a chief. (Before then, Hamilton Jordan had been his reluctant, de facto lieutenant.) Carter did not find the right person until his final year in office, when he tapped a brilliant lawyer and retired Marine named Jack Watson.
Alas, it was too late for Carter, who lost his reelection bid in a landslide. In this watershed moment for another beleaguered presidency, time is also running out for Donald Trump.