General John Kelly, newly-sworn-in White House chief of staff, certainly has his work cut out for him. He began his tenure in office with an easy and obvious move ― immediately firing Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci from his job as White House communications director. This completed a week and a half of musical chairs at the White House: Mooch was hired and Sean Spicer resigned in protest, Reince Priebus was fired and Kelly was announced as his replacement, Kelly was sworn in and then showed Mooch the door ― which was reportedly announced by none other than Sean Spicer. The circle is now complete, in a bizarre Trumpian way. Mooch lasted only ten days before he was escorted out of the White House. Worse for Mooch, he can’t even use the standard “spending more time with my family” excuse, since his wife reportedly just filed for divorce.
Is this the last spasm of chaos in the Donald Trump White House? Well, I wouldn’t bet on that personally, but let’s at least give Kelly the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he’ll get everyone under control, using his experience in the military to establish what has so far been sorely lacking in the Trump White House: a clear chain of command. This might go a long way towards solving the incessant backbiting and infighting, which has been the motivation behind much of the rampant leaking. Then again, it might not. After all, even if Kelly manages to hammer the rest of the White House into shape, he’ll still have a rather large loose cannon as his boss. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
In today’s press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that everyone in the White House will now be reporting to Kelly. If this turns out to be true, this would mean that Kelly will take control of who goes into the Oval Office ― meaning even Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner would have to make their case to Kelly before they get to talk to Donald Trump. Will this actually work? Or will they complain to Trump privately and convince him that they deserve the same full and unfettered access they have so far enjoyed?
Others on the list of people who have been able to waltz into the Oval Office on their own initiative reportedly include Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. Keeping Conway at arm’s length will be easier for Kelly to achieve, assumably, than doing the same with Bannon. Even if Kelly does fully restore the gatekeeping function of the chief of staff, this might mean he has accepted the full-time job of refereeing the squabbles between all the competing factions on Trump’s team. Kelly could succeed at this Herculean task, but the real mark of his success might not be the amount of squabbling that happens, but whether the public hears about it so much in the press.
Up until now, the press and the various Trump factions have used each other in a rather bizarre dance. Kellyanne Conway even admitted months ago that she appeared on so much cable television because she knew that it was the easiest way to influence Trump himself. This was an extraordinary statement from someone who had the privilege of standing in the room with Trump to make her case. Making her pitch to Trump worked better when he saw it on television than making that same pitch in person, in other words. For Trump people who didn’t have the luxury of appearing on television, leaking to the print media was almost as good, because any story that was juicy enough would inevitably be talked about on cable news.
This dynamic came to a head with the now-infamous Scaramucci interview with Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker. Scaramucci, by his own later admission in a tweet, somehow assumed that his phone call to a journalist would be off the record, without making that a condition of the call in advance. This is assumably why he felt so free to use salty language. But even taking Mooch at face value here, if he had remembered to say “hey, this whole call is going to be off the record” at the very start of it, then what he was doing was leaking to the press while complaining about White House people leaking to the press. Just another two-step in the dance with the media that all Trump players have been doing for months, in other words.
This White House has set new records in the “broken sieve” department when it comes to leaks. The term “leaks” doesn’t even begin to do it justice ― we should probably have been using “flood” for months, now. An absolute deluge of junior-high-level bickering among cliques, played out in as public a manner as possible. This is General Kelly’s first challenge, really. Because if Kelly fails to effectively crack the whip, then the bickering will continue, much to the delight of cable news hosts and late-night comics alike. The first test of this will be how much of what happened today ― the drama surrounding how Mooch was fired ― leaks out to the media in roughly the next 48 hours. If the lid stays on the details of the story, then perhaps Kelly has a chance of turning things around. If the gory details are on tomorrow morning’s news broadcasts, however, then Kelly will still obviously have a lot more work to do.
Of course, all the players in the media drama at the White House are taking their cues from the man at the top. Donald Trump is a master media manipulator, and it seems to be one of the two things he thoroughly enjoys about his job (the other being holding political rallies). The true test of Kelly’s ability to get the Trump White House under control will be whether he can get Trump’s tweets under control. Nobody else has been able to convince Trump to either stop the incessant whiny tweeting, or to even convince him to let someone else vet his tweets in advance for a minimum level of accuracy. Just this weekend, Trump showed an astonishing level of ignorance by complaining by tweet that the 60-vote filibuster rule was what torpedoed the healthcare bill in the Senate. Trump even ignorantly complained about “reconciliation,” apparently not realizing (even at this late date) that reconciliation was actually what allowed the Senate to pass the bill with only 50 votes, not 60. If someone had vetted these tweets, Trump would have been spared an extra dose of ridicule, to put it mildly.
Will Kelly be able to wrest control of Trump’s Twitter account away from him? That’s a pretty tall order, for this particular president. Trump has so far turned a deaf ear to all complaints about his tweeting, because he loves doing it so much. He is right about one thing ― Trump does have the power to completely change the subject in the media with one or two tweets. He diverts attention away from other news like nobody else can, and he knows it (and enjoys it). The problem has been that half of the time, what he’s diverting attention away from would have been good news for him (often he’s stomped all over carefully-crafted policy announcements from his own communication staff). But so far, nobody has been able to convince him that while seeing his tweets get rehashed on cable is lots of fun for him, in the long run it is doing him damage with the public.
Trump could be on the brink of a further collapse of his job approval polling numbers. For the past two months or so, he’s held pretty consistently around a 40 percent approval average ― the lowest such numbers ever recorded at this stage since presidential polling began. But the combination of the failure of “repeal and replace” and all the staff shakeups might have turned off some of his core supporters. While various polls report various numbers, individual polls are often slightly biased in one direction or another. Rasmussen is likely the most Republican-friendly poll around, and has consistently reported Trump’s job approval anywhere from three to ten points above Trump’s average from all polls. They even gave Trump a 50 percent approval rating in mid-June, when most other polls showed it closer to 40 percent. Today, though, Rasmussen is down to 39 percent approval ― the first time they’ve fallen below 40 percent. Trump’s overall average at Real Clear Politics is currently 39.2 percent. This means Trump could be on the brink of a larger falloff (Rasmussen and Gallup report numbers every day, but other polls take longer to reflect changes in public attitude, meaning the polling for the next two weeks will be interesting). If Trump sinks further in the polling, then Kelly may have a stronger hand to play. He can tell Trump: “I am your last chance,” and maybe Trump will actually listen.
Kelly certainly does have his work cut out for him. Ironically, after ten days of hirings and firings, the strongest thing Kelly has going for him is that Trump needs him more than Kelly needs the job. Kelly can walk away at any point and say “I tried, but I failed, so I resigned,” and still keep his honor and his self-dignity intact. Trump should know by now that Kelly walking off the job (after a few weeks or a few months) would look incredibly bad for Trump, and weaken Trump even further (after all, who would be willing to take the job then?). Of course, it is somewhat ridiculous to be speculating about how soon Kelly will quit on the man’s first day at his new job, but if the saga of The Mooch has told us anything, it is that in Trump’s White House such things can happen in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the saddest thing about Mooch leaving so soon is that now we’ll never know who was going to play him on next season’s Saturday Night Live.
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