clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Weeds: solving the enigma that is John Kelly

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Even though retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly was named White House chief of staff, in place of Reince Priebus, only two weeks ago Friday, that news was quickly eclipsed by the constant deluge of news coming out of the White House.

On the August 11 episode of The Weeds, Dara Lind and Andrew Prokop join Matt Yglesias to revisit Kelly’s role change, from a brief stint as homeland security secretary to chief of staff of a chaotic White House.

Andrew points out that in his position at the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly was publicly perceived as successful both by Trump voters and the president himself for being tough on immigration. Dara adds that this “success” was largely anchored to data showing that immigrant apprehension numbers plummeted in the weeks after Trump’s inauguration.

However, Dara says, this actually shouldn’t be attributed to anything Kelly did outright. She says a phenomenon occurred where Trump’s aggressive threats toward immigrants on the campaign trail and in office dissuaded central American families from trying to cross the border, but now those numbers are creeping back up.

In the meantime, Kelly’s perceived success at DHS has translated into his installment as chief of staff — and as Andrew, Dara, and Matt discuss, there are high expectations for Kelly, who is being put into a near-impossible situation.

You can listen to the episode here, or subscribe to the show on iTunes here.

Here’s Dara talking about why Trump is difficult to manage and why Kelly will ultimately not succeed in disciplining the president:

Trump really likes it when anybody can walk into the Oval Office or he can walk into anything else. He really doesn’t like any idea that his tweets should be considered some kind of reflection of the policy of the federal government and should maybe be considered — or at least people should be informed — before he goes and bans transgender people from the military on Twitter. Those are things that no chief of staff could do [anything about], that make the White House dysfunctional.

Trump just yesterday said that he doesn't like intelligence leaks but when they're White House leaks about who's in and who's out, those are coming from people who just want to show him how much they love him and he's kind of honored by that. That’s a recipe for a dysfunctional White House, and it's something that has always been part of Trump's management style. He cultivates chaos; he cultivates people warring for his attention.

Kelly is particularly allergic to politics. He really does not want to be — I mean, everything that he said during his military career was that he never wanted to be doing the exact thing that he is doing right now. And it's not clear that he’s changed his mind. His honor calculus requires him to be doing this job because he thinks that it's better that he do it than that he not do it for the country.

But what that means is that Trump thinks of himself as a unique political genius. He thinks that because he pulled out this surprise election win that he has his finger on the pulse of real America and that no one knows better than he does what is actually going to succeed politically. And it's not clear that anyone can tell him that he's wrong about that.

But John Kelly not only has no information but has no desire to tell him that he's wrong about that, because John Kelly doesn’t actually want to make arguments about what's going to work politically or not.

Show notes: