It is tempting to bask in the daily dose of palace intrigue these days at the Trump White House, but the running narratives of who reports to whom are not ultimately important. What matters is the path forward for the president’s agenda, and whether it is helped or hindered by the ever-changing cast of characters.
Change itself is not usually helpful. The ideal is to see a team selected, then watch it harmoniously coalesce on a smooth, sure path toward its goals.
That’s not this presidency. But in fairness, that’s not any presidency. Every administration has its sharp-elbowed infighting; this one simply has a special talent for putting it in a display window.
Amid turnover of this dizzying pace, the first question is: Are we upgrading at every position?
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Sean Spicer to Sarah Huckabee Sanders as press secretary? Yes. Reince Priebus to John Kelly as Chief of Staff? Yes. Anthony Scaramucci to his successor as communications director? Without even knowing that successor yet? Yes.
Scaramucci’s arrival and exit both warrant examination. His arrival showed Donald Trump’s desire to work with people who resemble him. His departure shows Trump’s unwillingness to work with people who embarrass him.
This is where the Trump haters step up to suggest there’s irony in someone as brash as Trump possibly being embarrassed by the language of anyone in his sphere. But no Trump tweet or other public comment comes close to the reckless, inexplicable idiocy of Scaramucci’s vulgar rant to a New Yorker reporter. The president likes fighters, but will not tolerate underlings who mortify critics and supporters alike for no reason.
So does the arrival of a retired Marine general as chief of staff bring instant discipline? It brought Scaramucci’s instant departure and delivered an instant message. From here on out, it’s anybody’s guess. Kelly will almost surely enforce a certain decorum among the ranks, but do not expect him to constrain the instincts of his boss.
Nor should he. The Trump tweets are the engine that inspires and delights his base, even as enemies float withering tales of Russia collusion.
But even the most loyal portions of that base are eager to see some actual results. The Obamacare repeal failure has not been his fault, and there is no doubt that the half-year of Trump has ushered in an America that feels very different in terms of borders, the economy, energy and various social issues, just for starters. Those changes have been welcomed by the vast majority of voters who sought exactly this type of change.
But as John Kelly plugs in to whip the troops into shape toward goals like tax reduction and regulatory reform, history observes that chiefs of staff are rarely famous and rarely long-serving; Barack Obama had four in his first term. The best evidence that Kelly is doing his job will be how seldom he appears in the headlines.
That will be a challenge in a carnivorous media environment that will obsess at the slightest whiff of a West Wing soap opera. The best thing Kelly can do is enforce message discipline around the Oval Office while the man inside figures out what his daily or hourly passions are.
At no point will this come to resemble a White House akin to what any of Trump’s 2016 rivals might have rolled out. At no point will it resemble any White House, ever.
John Kelly is a welcome asset who can be of great value, but the direction of the Trump administration will not be dictated by anyone but the president himself.
The writer is a radio host in north Texas and a frequent columnist for The Dallas Morning News.