If John Kelly didn’t exist, President Donald Trump would have to invent him, and he wouldn’t be able to.
The chief of staff has had a rocky couple of weeks — first it was the imbroglio over ousted White House staff secretary Rob Porter, and now stories of a brewing clash with Jared Kushner — but he is as close as it gets to an indispensable man in the Trump White House.
Where else is the president going to find someone whom he likes and respects (at least on most days), who can intimidate the White House staff into a semblance of order, who has experience in wielding responsibility in even more difficult circumstances, and who shares Trump’s instincts?
The last of these is the reason why, more than any other, there has been a major downdraft in Kelly’s press coverage. He went from “Trump’s Last Best Hope,” per Time magazine last August, to a bitter disappointment. A writer at FiveThirtyEight wrote a piece the other day explaining “How the Media Bungled the John Kelly Story,” referring not to any specific story about Kelly, but to the overall sense that he’d be a restraining influence on the president.
There are two things to say about this: One, Kelly has indeed been a restraining influence on Trump, even if that is difficult to believe. Just imagine a White House with all those who have now mostly been locked out — Corey Lewandowski and Co. — back on the inside to do their utmost to create the chaos and self-valorizing leaking sufficient for “Fire and Fury: The Sequel.”
Two, Kelly’s fundamental offense as far as the press is concerned is that he, unexpectedly, shares Trump’s views on hot-button cultural issues like immigration and crime.
Kelly’s boosters in the media had a fantasy that he would show up at the White House and take Trump aside at some point and explain, “It is my solemn duty to advise you, Sir, to accept whatever immigration proposal that Lindsey Graham backs, and failing that, my resignation letter will be on your desk in the morning.”
This didn’t accord with Kelly’s hawkishness as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. What most people had missed about Kelly is that he’s an Irish Catholic kid from Boston who shares Trump’s Northeastern working-class conservative sensibility that is tough-minded and impatient with political correctness.
Kelly took justifiable incoming over the Porter fiasco, which was badly mishandled. But it wasn’t the chief of staff’s responsibility to bird-dog Porter’s security clearance. Kelly seems to have been guilty, for the most part, of the normal human impulse to believe the best of someone he’d worked with closely and had always conducted himself professionally.
With all the negative press coverage of the Porter fiasco, stories inevitably emerged of Trump’s thinking about a replacement for Kelly. If Trump were actually to dump him, it’d be his most destructive personnel move since firing FBI Director James Comey.
Trump wouldn’t get someone whom he admires as much. The president respects military men and billionaires, and perhaps the former even a little more than the latter. Kelly, the Marine general who lost a son in Afghanistan, can speak to Trump peer to peer in a way no Washington politico can.
Trump wouldn’t find someone else who is so clearly in it for the right reasons. Kelly didn’t want the position and repeatedly refused when it was first offered. He has no interest in jockeying for his next big Washington job.
Trump wouldn’t find a comparable enforcer. Kelly’s military bearing and no-nonsense demeanor serve him well. His extensive leadership experience in even more complicated, high-pressure situations has prepared him for an environment in which chaos and the sense of crisis constantly emanate from the top.
In short, it is Kelly or bust. Trump should consider himself fortunate to have him, and avoid the fool’s errand of trying to find an improvement.