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An end to chaos in the White House? General Kelly takes over

Just six days ago I wrote an article for The Duran in which I said that if President Trump is to avoid seeing his administration unravel he has to stop destabilising it himself, with bad decisions negating good decisions and with President Trump himself prosecuting public feuds against top people in his administration like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The decision to force out the newly appointed Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci – who was supposed to start his job on 15th August 2017, meaning that he been effectively sacked from his job before it technically even started – is a sign of the chaos at the heart of the administration.  However potentially it could also be a sign that things are finally being brought under control.

Turning first to Scaramucci, in my article of six days ago I referred to him on the strengths of things I had heard and read about him as an “accomplished communications director”.

Few things I have written about someone have turned out to be so wrong so quickly.  Far from being “accomplished” Scaramucci – “the Mooch” – in the brief time he was in post did more damage to the administration than any other single official President Trump has appointed.

Not only has Scaramucci behaved in a way totally inappropriate for a person in his position – for example through his uninhibited use of bad language – but he has acted in a way that went far beyond his remit, publicly intriguing against other members of the administration – such as the President’s chief strategist Steve Bannon – and generally acting as if he was the person who was ultimately in charge of the White House and by extension of the whole US government.

That this was a megalomaniac stance for someone who is simply a communications director to take ought to have been obvious, and made it only a matter of time before the President fired him.  Having said this, though Scaramucci’s sacking – talk of him having “voluntarily resigned” should not be taken seriously – was undoubtedly correct and appropriate, the President can be justly criticised for appointing such an obviously unfit person to a senior post.  The best that can be said about this sorry affair is that at least Scaramucci was sacked quickly before he did even more damage.

As for Scaramucci himself, the one good thing that does seem to have come from his appointment is that it seems to have precipitated the removal of two other senior White House officials who were frankly not up to their jobs: chief of staff Reince Priebus and White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

Neither of these officials – both of whom appeared to be closer to the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party than to the President himself – seemed to have the President’s trust, and in the case of Priebus he seems to have been little more than a rather ineffective administrator and not the tough manager and enforcer of the President’s decisions that the President’s chief of staff needs to be.

For the President the whole point of retaining Priebus – whom he inherited from the Republican National Committee when he became the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency – was Priebus’s established links to the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party (amongst whom the President is disastrously short of friends) which was expected to help pilot the President’s legislation through the Congress.

In the event Priebus failed even in that.  Not only have the President’s repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare – something which the Republican Party is in theory in full agreement about – so far failed because of the failure of the Republican Party in Congress to unite on key votes, but the President must be privately furious that the Republican Party in Congress chose instead to unite with the Democrats to force on him a sanctions law that is obviously designed to torpedo his policy of seeking better relations with Russia.

The President’s tweets – always a reliable indicator of his state of mind – have made clear in recent days his growing frustration at the logjam in Congress, which is also holding up the confirmation process for his remaining appointments.

Given that Priebus was failing to manage the White House effectively, and was unable to get the Republican Party to unite behind the President’s legislation, it is no surprise the President finally gave up on him.  According to the London Times – unusually well informed because its proprietor Rupert Murdoch is close to the President – as long ago as May the President was looking to replace him, and had approached General Kelly as far back as then to take over as chief of staff.

That appointment has finally been made, and it seems that two of the conditions Kelly set for accepting the job were firstly that all White House officials – including Jared Kushner and Steven Bannon – should be subordinated to him and report to the President solely through him, and secondly that Scaramucci should go.

Scaramucci’s sacking was therefore the result of General Kelly’s appointment as the President’s new chief of staff, just as Scaramucci’s appointment appears to have been the event which precipitated Priebus’s removal, and which caused Sean Spicer’s departure.

If General Kelly is able to take effective control of the White House and make of it a properly functioning political operation then the chaos of the last two weeks will have been worth it.  He does come to the job with some reasons for thinking that he might succeed in doing that.

Firstly, as might be expected of a Marine General who has commanded troops in the field and who has run large departments like Homeland Security, Kelly appears to be a capable administrator.  His insistence on a proper chain of command in the White House is a sign of that.

Secondly, Trump – like many civilians – is in awe of the military, and has surrounded himself with them.

It is striking that the top officials with whom Trump appears to get on with best are either successful businessmen or generals.  The senior official he is said to be most at ease with, and who has his fullest confidence, is General Mattis who is his Defense Secretary, with whom Trump regularly has private dinners.  Trump is also said to have got on well with General Kelly whilst Kelly was head of Homeland Security.  Undoubtedly he will have appreciated Kelly’s loyal and effective support to him during the battle over his ‘travel ban’ Executive Orders.

However against these factors which point to General Kelly’s possible future success, there are other factors which point towards possible failure.

Firstly, for General Kelly to succeed the President has to give him his loyal and unstinting support.

That means first and foremost the President reining in his own impulses.  He must stop conducting public feuds against members of his own administration like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and railing publicly at his officials when things go wrong, which in politics they often do.  Should he ever turn on Kelly in the same public way that he has recently turned on Sessions the damage will be disastrous.  Unfortunately the President’s impulsive personality means that there is no guarantee he will not do so.

Secondly, the President must learn to communicate with his staff and with the members of his administration – including with people like Jared Kushner and Steven Bannon, and with others like Attorney General Sessions and the new head of the FBI – through Kelly, observing the chain of command which his new chief of staff is setting up, and whose existence is essential for the successful management of any large organisation like the White House.  The damage done to the President by his decision to have personal contacts with former FBI Director James Comey – who it is now clear was throughout his contacts with the President in fact intriguing against him – ought to teach the President of the danger of acting in any other way.

Unfortunately personal contact with officials is very much the President’s style.  It is the style he has become accustomed to in his business dealings, and which he has tried disastrously to bring with him into the White House.  Will the President now put it aside and listen to General Kelly, respecting the chain of command his chief of staff is creating?

Thirdly, it will require other senior officials in the White House – which means people like Kushner and Bannon – who have become accustomed to having direct access to the President being prepared to work with Kelly and to accept their subordination to him.  That will be a new experience for them, and given that some of them – Steve Bannon for example – are strong personalities, it is an open question to what extent they will accept it.

Fourthly and lastly, managing this proud, inexperienced and impulsive President and his fractious team will also require a difficult mix of both forthrightness and tact on General Kelly’s part.  The forthrightness is known to be there in abundance.  Is the tact?

Whether Kelly will succeed in bringing order to the White House and to the administration remains to be seen.

His appointment does however further signal the unprecedented influence of the military in this administration.  Kelly now joins two other generals – Generals Mattis and McMaster – at the heart of the US government.  Not only is the President’s most trusted senior minister – Defense Secretary Mattis – a general, but both his chief of staff and his National Security Adviser are now generals as well.

Compare that with Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia, where none of the top officials who are permanent members of Russia’s Security Council, are military officers.  That by the way includes General Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister, who despite holding a military rank is by training a civil engineer not a soldier.

Whether this rise of the generals to the top of the US government is a good thing remains to be seen.  Peter Lavelle once said on a Crosstalk programme I attended that generals historically have been better at executing policy than at making it.  Not only is that true but generals’ history of political effectiveness tends to be poor.

Others might point out – sourly but also correctly – that given the generals indifferent performance in recent wars – in none of which have they managed to win a “victory” – their current rise to prominence looks hardly deserved.

The fact however remains that things cannot continue to go on inside the Trump White House in the way that they have been doing for much longer without irreparable damage being done.  To be clear, the erratic and chaotic state of things in the White House is far more politically dangerous to the President than the synthetic and overblown Russiagate scandal, which is now clearly falling apart.

The coming of General Kelly is probably this administration’s best – and last – chance to put things right.  Certainly the President seems to think so

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