President Donald Trump’s bellicose warning to North Korea was frightening on several levels, including telling us how little effect new Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly is having on the commander in chief. Unbound as ever by the usual norms of diplomacy and nuclear-weapon rattling, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” as Kelly sat stiff as a statue across the table.
Trump wasn’t reading from notes. He did not consult with anyone—his Secretary of State, his U.N. Ambassador, much less the generals he loves, including Kelly—maybe because, as he’s said, he’s smarter than they are.
It’s only been two weeks and Trump’s dashed the hopes of those who pleaded with Kelly to move to the White House to get it functioning well enough to deal with a crisis, such as the current one.
Even with 24 hours after Trump went rogue on nuclear war, Kelly couldn’t talk the boss off the limb he crawled on to. At a follow-up press conference Thursday, Trump made matters worse, predicting that Ambassador Nikki Haley’s unanimous U.N. resolution sanctioning North Korea would fail, and that he didn’t go far enough with his “fire and fury” talk, a point repeated by aide Sebastian Gorka, a Trump pet and wearer of a medal from Vitezi Rend, a group listed as “under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany” by the State Department during World War II. Gorka added that Trump, not Secretary Rex Tillerson with his walk-back of the threat, was right about North Korea’s “pajama boy.”
In fairness to Kelly, he’s barely had two weeks to work his magic and he pointedly did not promise a rose garden, specifically exempting controlling Trump’s tweets from his agenda. And Kelly has some notable achievements meriting the cover of Time magazine as Trump’s “Last Best Hope,” which Trump may make him regret. He scored a truce between the Sharks and the Jets, who are no longer openly knifing each other. Staff now comes in early, can only enter the Oval Office if Kelly approves, and must raise their hands or speak in turn, without rambling, at meetings. Memos all go through the chief of staff’s office. Neatness counts.
This means the kids are all right and might earn an A for deportment if there were report cards. But so what? If the adult in the White House is able to elude his chief of staff to trash talk Kim Jong Un to the effect that no one threatens Donald Trump and gets away with it, all the flow charts in the world don’t matter.
To keep peace, Kelly has to manage the president himself. By almost any measure, Trump doesn’t have enough to do and, according to a confidant, likes it that way. In talking to four previous chiefs of staff, Trump’s daily schedule is markedly lighter than any predecessor’s.
Most presidents get their intelligence briefings first thing; Trump gets his at 10:30am, which isn’t so bad if you recall that at first he didn’t want any at all. There are fewer than five things on his published schedule most days, one of which is often a lunch with an aide or the vice president where he gets two scoops of ice cream and they get one.
To plump up the president’s schedule, Sean Spicer had to resort to adding parentheticals about what pleased the president that day (confirmations), his hopes (for a good economy), what the vice president was doing (more than the president) and the theme of the week (Small Business Week, Hero’s Week etc.). If FEMA was conducting a severe-weather conference call, that would get thrown in as if the president were in on it.
Here is Spicer giving the president’s schedule on May 1: “After receiving his daily intelligence briefing this morning, the president led a National Economic Council listening session with CEOs of small and community banks,” followed by filler until he got back to specifics of Trump having lunch with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney. That was followed by a visit from former Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, a joint meeting with Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and finally, at 4 p.m., remarks to the Senate Youth Program. At 5 p.m., he rested.”
It isn’t that Trump’s lazy exactly—he’s energetic in the manner of a hummingbird—but that he finds the parts of governing not on camera boring. His light schedule leaves him time to do what he likes: Wake up and settle his many scores via Twitter, without weighing the consequences or checking the spelling, against perceived enemies like that nut job Comey, his attorney general, the special counsel, a senator and Marine who didn’t serve in Vietnam, anyone who’s slighted him on a talk show, the former president and Hillary, and now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s in the dog house until he’s passes Trump’s entire agenda and finds a cure for cancer.
In this wide-open day, he wants as few briefings as possible, even if each is limited to one page and nine points, which is why he gets impatient with decorated commander Gen. H.R. McMaster as the commander in chief tries to remember the difference between Shias and Sunnis, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and where Fallujah is.
Reading is a chore, other than the two folders of glowing clips he gets daily. He prefers talking to outsiders to get a read on how he’s doing (always well) rather than spend time with his Cabinet, whom he’s met with once and which, on cue, told him that it is a blessing to serve him. A perfect day is one that ends at his hotel down the street with a piece of its signature chocolate “Trump” cake.
It won’t be easy for Kelly to beef up the schedule given how much Trump likes to be master of his domain. Unless someone puts parental controls onto his phone and his 60-inch TV, he’ll continue to clock more screen time than a teenager playing Candy Crush.
After his repeated promises during the campaign—“Believe me, I won’t be taking a vacation”—he is on a 17-day break that doesn’t differ that much from his weekends. Trump’s hit the links most of the 66 days he’s spent away from his desk at various Trump properties, a record that leaves Obama in the dust.
If Kelly thinks controlling Trump over Kim is hard, he should wait until the president returns to the renovated West Wing and gets a load of the angry inflated fowl with an orange pompadour that can be seen from the Truman Balcony and is positioned to show up in live TV shots. He’s gone ballistic over less.
Kelly has the hopes and dreams of the Washington establishment on his bemedaled shoulders but Trump is proving ever more unmanageable. Could Trump prove to be another Vietnam for his generals? Already Kelly’s laid the groundwork for catching the last helicopter out of Saigon, telling Fox News this week that “the principal ultimately decides and… so long as that decision is legal, moral, and ethical, one salutes and executes.”
Almost sighing, the general concluded, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.”