Idiot, moron, unhinged. There’s a whole section of the thesaurus for the ways that the President’s closest advisors have reportedly described him. The latest addition to this thread comes from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly who reportedly referred to his boss as an idiot.
Kelly says it’s a lie. But either way, the episode is part of an ongoing series of leaks, from the White House, that raise questions about Kelly’s ability to manage the place. After all, a chief of staff who not only can’t control leaks in general, but can’t even control leaks about himself, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
All of which begs the question: why General Kelly is still around? The answer is, he shouldn’t be, at least not unless he steps up soon.
Right now, we have deadweight in the chief of staff’s office. It’s the worst kept secret in Washington that morale at the White House is at an all time low. There are many reasons for this—from the Russia investigation to the Stormy scandal and more. But Kelly hasn’t helped matters either. Who can forget his comments that God was punishing him by moving him from DHS to the White House; or how he told reporters that Rex Tillerson was in the bathroom when he fired him? Even if he didn’t call Trump an idiot, the example he’s set is that he thinks working at the White House is punishment and he’s comfortable humiliating cabinet members.
As Kelly laments his professional lot in life, that lot also seems to be growing smaller. We learned earlier this month that National Security Advisor John Bolton and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow no longer reports to Kelly (they now have a direct line to the President), and the President’s inner, inner circle (his family) have had free rein to operate outside of Kelly’s orbit from the get go.
So, who, with actual influence is reporting to the chief of staff? If the primary foreign policy and domestic policy bodies don’t, it’s a logical conclusion that he could be in the dark on key decisions, including everything from which foreign visitors come to the White House, to when and how to unveil major trade initiatives. Those are pretty weighty issues to be left out of.
But even if he does have more free time, it’s not clear what Kelly is doing with it.
It wasn’t so long ago that he was supposedly doing a review of the security clearance process at the White House in the wake of the Rob Porter scandal. He even issued a five-page memo that said the White House would “discontinue any Top Secret or SCI-level interim clearances for individuals whose investigations or adjudications have been pending since June 1, 2017 or before.”
The result, apparently, was the downgrading of Jared Kushner’s security clearance—a decision that Trump said he’d respect. But Jared is still talking to foreign officials on behalf of the U.S. government, much of which is done above a secret level. He’s still, from what we know, participating in national security meetings (again, much of which is done above a secret level).
It is true that the President can give Kushner access to any level of intelligence that he wants. But it’s also true that in doing so he’s completely neutering Kelly. Processes and procedures, as established by an empowered chief of staff, don’t get family carve-outs.
And therein lies the main problem Kelly faces. He doesn’t actually have control at all, it appears.
Take the president’s schedule. Determining it each day takes great skill. My former colleagues on the scheduling team were experts at working with various parts of the White House on President Obama’s schedule and working with the chief of staff to ensure that the president was using his time efficiently, productively, and in a presidential manner.
From President Trump’s twitter feed, it’s pretty clear that something is amiss from a scheduling perspective. The entire world knows that free time in front of the TV is not good for the president. It sets him off, he tweets something inaccurate or offensive, his team tries to clean up the mess or plant another story to distract us, and we lose a lot of time. And yet, Trump seems glued to the TV and keen on venting his frustrations on twitter.
There’s a know-your-customer rule in every job, and the chief of staff has to know what kinds of environments are good or bad for the President. Kelly is failing to abide by that rule. Perhaps he’s found it impossible to grapple with.
The uncomfortable truth is, it’s likely that President Trump considers himself his own chief of staff. Just like he considers himself his own communications director. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept a deadweight in that critical job.
Yes, the risks are enormously high if a change are to be made. Donald Trump could centralize the chief of staff responsibilities in his own office, which would mean that he could really operate unchecked. I cringe to think about what that would look like. But the upsides are high too. An empowered chief of staff that has access and influence over the President and the staff he (or she) is supposed to be managing is no small matter. It’s the difference between a dysfunctional executive branch and a functioning one.
Maybe the answer lies somewhere on the spectrum, but what we can’t do is accept this status quo. Kelly was supposed to be the one who brought order and a touch of sanity to the current operation. But it hasn’t happened. It’s time for him to stand up or go.
Samantha Vinograd, @sam_vinograd, is a CNN National Security Analyst who served on President Obama's National Security Council and at the US Treasury Under President Bush