I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations. I also value people that work for me speaking truth to power.
—Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, during his January 10, 2017 confirmation hearing to be Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
A straight-talking, bright, widely respected leader with hardscrabble South Boston roots, John Kelly served for over 40 years in the Marine Corps, including as the head of US Southern Command. On July 31, Kelly transitioned from his position as DHS Secretary to the White House, to take the reigns as President Trump’s second Chief of Staff (COS). Although there’s limited precedent for a current or former general to serve as White House COS, Kelly is the first to do so since Alexander Haig served as COS to President Nixon (and then very briefly to President Ford).
With less than five days on the job, Kelly has moved aggressively to bring needed order and discipline to an often chaotic White House. In his first major act as COS, Kelly fired newly-installed White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Trump loyalist, sending an unambiguous message to West Wing staff that a lack of discipline will not be tolerated. Scaramucci had just committed an unforced (and unforgiveable for a communications staffer) error by unwittingly giving an on-the-record interview during which he criticized then COS Reince Priebus and current Chief Strategist Steve Bannon in profanity-laden and graphic terms.
Kelly has also limited access to the Oval Office, requiring that all West Wing personnel – including Bannon, First Daughter and Advisor Ivanka Trump, and the President’s son-in-law and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner – must report to him directly. Reince Priebus, Kelly’s only predecessor, during his approximately six-month tenure as COS, never enjoyed the same authority Kelly now appears to command after less than one week as COS. As has been widely reported, Bannon, Ivanka Trump, and Kushner, among many other White House personnel, would go around Priebus to carry their inputs directly to the President. That President Trump has agreed to this new chain of command structure, at least for now, is a critical early win for Kelly as he seeks to secure control of the at-times warring factions within the staff ranks he now oversees.
Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been dubbed the “Axis of Adults” by members of the GOP national security and foreign policy “establishment” who believe these men and their allies are an essential stabilizing force against influential ideologues within the Trump Administration. Kelly has already shown deference, support, and loyalty to McMaster, a friend and three-star Army general, who has weathered widespread reports in recent weeks that he and the President have an at-times strained relationship. After pitched battles with some of the competing interests within the West Wing over National Security Council (NSC) staffing and policy matters, McMaster has prioritized a purging of NSC staff brought on by his predecessor, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Not coincidentally, two days into Kelly’s tenure as COS, McMaster dismissed a member of the NSC staff that he’d been seeking to terminate for several months with no success as a result of pushback against the staffing change by Bannon and Kushner. This was a long-sought win for McMaster and clear demonstration of the substantial authority and influence Kelly wields as COS.
Elder GOP statesman and two-time White House COS James Baker summed up the critical choice any new COS must make in choosing a leadership style, in sharing recently with The New York Times that: “You can focus on the ‘chief,’ or you can focus on the ‘of staff.’ Those who have focused on the ‘of staff’ have done pretty well.” A leader of unquestioned character, forged by a lifetime of putting country before self, Kelly appears to be adhering to Baker’s guidance as he focuses on creating order out of chaos to empower an often dysfunctional White House to more effectively pursue and execute the President’s agenda.
Although Kelly is expected to achieve at least some success in imposing military discipline on his staff, he doesn’t believe that it’s his role to attempt to do the same with the President, in large part because, as he has shared privately, such an effort would very likely be futile. However, Kelly demonstrated during his tenure as DHS Secretary a willingness to “speak truth to power,” including during frank conversations with the President to emphasize his staunch disagreement with the roll out and structure of the Administration’s original travel ban. In this vein, Kelly has indicated that he plans to mitigate the flow of bad information to the President, whether from West Wing staff seeking to shape the President’s thinking (hence the restricting of access to the Oval Office), or from less than credible media outlets. Acknowledging that wholly stanching the flow of bad information to the President isn’t possible, as an offset, Kelly has stated that he’ll serve as a provider of unassailable facts to Trump.
A combat-decorated retired general and generational peer whom Trump has sought out often for guidance during the first six months of his presidency, Kelly has a level of respect and admiration from the President that Priebus did not. So while any pragmatist would concede that President Trump will forever be his own chief of staff, were there ever an individual with the right combination of grit, character, experience, and no-nonsense leadership acumen to bring much-needed order to an often undisciplined White House, we must look no further than the man who has just entered the building.