No person’s entire career can be summed up in a single quote. But ousted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s defense to the charge that the Trump administration’s child separation policy at the border was cruel deserves to be etched into his tombstone.
“The children,” he said, “will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”
That is roughly the degree of thoughtfulness and consideration that was put into the policy. And it properly reflects Kelly’s true legacy as chief of staff.
The typical thing to say about Kelly is that he brought order to the White House process. He was the “grown-up in the room” who enforced discipline, but, ultimately, even Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, could not curb President Donald Trump’s most egregious instincts.
John Kelly, a strong-willed former military commander who is from Boston, imposed a measure of discipline on President Trump’s tumultuous presidency. https://t.co/N33kVvOVSn— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) December 8, 2018
But the emphasis on times when Kelly could rein in Trump ignores the extent to which the two men were genuinely like-minded, and the many crucial moments where Kelly exacerbated Trump’s worst instincts.
Kelly intervened to scuttle a potentially sensible Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) deal while mocking large numbers of DACA-eligible youth as “lazy.” He slandered Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and then for no real reason refused to apologize. He attempted to orchestrate a cover-up of White House aide Rob Porter’s alleged domestic abuse.
Trump is having trouble replacing Kelly. Nick Ayres, the young political operative who’d long been rumored to be next in line, apparently turned down the job. Based on Trump’s hiring track record, we can expect he’ll hire someone terrible. But the Kelly bar is exceptionally low, so America may be in for a stroke of luck. But we owe it to ourselves to remember how bad Kelly was.
Trump is very poorly staffed
No president has been nearly as ignorant as Trump, but no president is knowledgeable about all the issues that come across his desk. We have a historical model for dealing with presidential ignorance, and it involves staffing. A strong chief of staff ensures that the right people are in front of the president, briefing him on their respective areas of expertise.
Kelly has been a spectacular failure in this regard. Trump has, for example, a somewhat idiosyncratic but by no means unique belief that the bipartisan consensus on free trade over the past generation has been a disaster for America. I don’t really agree with the very strong form of this critique that Trump offers, but I’m at least a little bit sympathetic to it. And I know plenty of smart, knowledgeable people who agree with him.
But instead of working with those people to formulate a trade policy that makes sense, Trump has an economic policy team whose main principals (Steve Mnuchin, Larry Kudlow, Kevin Hassett, and formerly Gary Cohn) think he’s wrong, and where the main players who agree with him are Peter Navarro (whose ideas are not taken seriously by anyone serious) and Wilbur Ross (who has huge financial conflicts of interest).
As a result, Trump has embarked upon trade policies that are incomprehensible and have managed to somehow simultaneously rattle financial markets with talk of trade war while also increasing the trade deficit.
The chief of staff should be introducing Trump to some competent, qualified advisers who sympathize with Trump’s point of view and can help him come up with ideas that will accomplish something. (I would start with Harvard’s Dani Rodrik, the Economic Policy Institute’s Thea Lee, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Dean Baker.)
Similarly, Trump keeps complaining that Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell is too eager to raise interest rates, but Trump is not appointing people to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors who share this view. Blame accrues in the first instance to Trump for not bothering to figure this out. But Kelly’s job, for better or worse, is to help make up for some of Trump’s shortcomings, and he just hasn’t been doing it. Instead, in key areas, he’s been making things worse.
Coverage of Trump and Kelly’s relationship has, from the beginning, been a little bit oddly dominated by the question of Kelly’s ability (or lack thereof) to constrain Trump’s bad tweets. As someone who’s gotten in trouble at work for bad tweets myself over the years, I always appreciate focus on this critical topic.
But in the specific context of Trump, the extraordinary thing isn’t his bad tweets but the fact that he has no substantive command of any policy area. He desperately needs a capable chief of staff. Instead, he had Kelly.
Kelly is keeping Congress dysfunctional
In January, it briefly seemed like Democratic congressional leaders and Trump personally had a deal on immigration. The basic contours of the deal were legal status and a path to citizenship for the million or so DACA-eligible young people, who surely constitute the most sympathetic bloc of undocumented people living in the United States. They’d get this legal status in exchange for a huge $20 billion increase in border security money — including Trump’s beloved wall.
But as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained to Vox’s Tara Golshan at the time, Kelly kept wrecking the deal.
“As soon as the guest leaves the office, Gen. Kelly calls in the right-wingers and they bat it down and say, ‘You can’t do it.’ We’ll never reach an agreement unless there’s a more open approach at the White House and the president is more constructive.” Durbin told Golshan.
“This president is just unable to make a promise and keep it.”
Kelly’s idea was that Trump should hold out for sweeping changes to the law governing asylum and to the way legal immigration to the United States works. Whatever you think of these ideas on the merits, it was inconceivable that Democrats would agree to this — which Kelly surely would know if he’d ever actually listened to immigration activists instead of yelling at them.
The collapse of negotiations has led to a lot of anxiety and suffering among the people who could have benefited — which has, in turn, been a mild drag on the American economy. But in terms of Kelly’s negotiating objectives, he accomplished nothing. Democrats are no closer to giving in on any of these points; the DACA recipients are protected by the courts for now, at least; and Congress is still fighting about border wall funding, with no end in sight.
Trump had unprecedentedly little experience in government for a president, and Kelly chose to back him up by putting himself in charge of a delicate congressional negotiation even though he also had no experience with this — and then the whole thing blew up in everyone’s face.
America can do better than this. Even Trump can do better.
The stench should stick
Unfortunately, the truism that nobody escapes the Trump administration with their reputation intact is not accurate.
Gary Cohn was invited by Harvard’s Institute of Politics to address incoming members of Congress and school them in the ways of the world. (Sean Spicer was an Institute of Politics visiting fellow until recently.) Dina Powell was the featured speaker last week at a gala fundraising luncheon for the Women in Foreign Policy Group.
On his way out the door, Kelly seems to have a reputation (in at least some circles) as a disciplinarian who played a constructive role in the administration.
It’s true that, next to Trump, virtually anyone looks good. It’s also true that any chief of staff is bound to try to undercut Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s influence, which will almost automatically make you a sympathetic-seeming figure in comparison.
But the fact remains that Kelly was a true believer in some of Trump’s very worst ideas, echoed several of his very worst influences, failed completely to compensate for Trump’s most significant personal deficiencies, and intervened at key moments to make things worse. Good riddance.