Back in February, 2016, before anything was decided, Emily Flitter filed a curious background story for Reuters:
Presidential candidate Donald Trump admires the late Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, both World War Two generals. They were winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys, he says in campaign speeches. But Trump’s pledge to imitate their styles sets modern-day military experts on edge.
Although unquestionably in the pantheon of U.S. military heroes, MacArthur and Patton were also controversial figures remembered by historians as flamboyant self-promoters. The commander in the Pacific, MacArthur was eventually fired by President Harry Truman for speaking out against Truman’s policies in the Korean War, which followed World War Two. Before Patton died in December 1945, he questioned the need to remove Nazis from key posts in postwar German politics and society.
It seems that Donald Trump doesn’t attend to details like that:
Born in 1946, a year after World War Two ended, Trump often praises MacArthur and Patton for the blunt ways he says they commanded respect. “George Patton was one of the roughest guys, he would talk rough to his men,” Trump told an audience last week in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “His men would die for him,” Trump added. “We don’t have that anymore.” He said Patton would wipe out Islamic State without hesitation, were he still in command.
His crowds cheered, but others didn’t:
Interviewed by Reuters, recently retired military personnel voiced doubts about Trump’s grasp of U.S. military operations. One retired four-star general called Trump’s references to Patton and MacArthur “bumper sticker foolishness.” Another said Trump was comparing “apples to oranges” by likening America’s role in World War Two to the fight against Islamic State.
“He has no understanding of how it works, at least in my view,” said an aide to a third retired four-star general. “He makes these bold statements and one-liners, but that doesn’t translate into understanding what it takes to be a military leader, what it takes to develop a plan.”
Donald Trump would disagree, and has. Even if he didn’t go to Vietnam, he did attend a military academy, not a regular high school, so he knows about such things, or so he says:
Donald J. Trump, who received draft deferments through much of the Vietnam War, told the author of a coming biography that he nevertheless “always felt that I was in the military” because of his education at a military-themed boarding school.
Mr. Trump said his experience at the New York Military Academy, an expensive prep school where his parents had sent him to correct poor behavior, gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”
He seems to believe that, but now he’s run into the real thing.
Glenn Thrush, along with Michael Shear and Eileen Sullivan, report on Donald Trump’s encounter with the real thing:
In his six months as Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly often described the White House as one of the most dysfunctional organizations he had ever seen, complained to colleagues and allies about its meddling, incompetence and recklessness, and was once so angry he briefly considered quitting.
Now as President Trump’s chief of staff, he is doing something about it – with a suddenness and force that have upended the West Wing.
This is what an actual general does:
Mr. Kelly cuts off rambling advisers midsentence. He listens in on conversations between cabinet secretaries and the president. He has booted lingering staff members out of high-level meetings, and ordered the doors of the Oval Office closed to discourage strays. He fired Anthony Scaramucci, the bombastic New Yorker who was briefly the communications director, and has demanded that even Mr. Trump’s family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, check with him if they want face time with the president.
On Wednesday, his third day on the job, he delivered a message about respecting chains of command, backing the decision of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to dismiss Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Kushner ally and staff member on the National Security Council. It was a move Mr. Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, had long opposed, according to two administration officials.
He did what had to be done, but continuing on with this will not be easy:
Whether Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, will succeed in imposing military discipline on the faction-ridden White House remains in doubt; Mr. Trump has never been known to follow anybody’s direction, in Trump Tower or the White House. But Mr. Trump has never encountered anyone quite like Mr. Kelly, a combat veteran whose forceful management style and volatile temper are a match for the president’s.
“He’d basically look at me and say, ‘I think that proposal is four-letter-word nuts,'” said Leon E. Panetta, who as defense secretary made Mr. Kelly his chief military aide. “John is the kind of guy who will look you in the eye and tell you what the hell he is thinking. The real question is whether the president will give him the authority he needs to do the job.”
That will be the question:
Mr. Kelly, 67, has told his new employees that he was hired to manage the staff, not the president. He will not try to change Mr. Trump’s Twitter or TV-watching habits. But he has also said he wants to closely monitor the information the president consumes, quickly counter dubious news stories with verified facts, and limit the posse of people urging Mr. Trump to tweet something they feel passionately about.
He has privately acknowledged that he cannot control the president and that his authority would be undermined if he tried and failed. Instead, he is intent on cosseting Mr. Trump with bureaucratic competence and forcing staff members to keep to their lanes, a challenge in an administration defined by tribal loyalties to power players like Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon.
But he’s had a head start on that:
Mr. Kelly has not been shy about letting Mr. Trump’s staff members know when they screwed up, ripping into West Wing aides during the chaos surrounding the president’s original travel ban when he was at the Department of Homeland Security. While he supported the broad policy goals, he was furious that he and his sprawling agency’s staff were caught off guard by a directive that was conceived and carried out by inexperienced aides in the White House, according to several longtime Trump advisers.
People close to Mr. Kelly said he also bristled repeatedly at efforts by Mr. Bannon and Stephen Miller, the president’s senior adviser, to install people they liked in his department. Mr. Kelly eventually won pitched battles over who would become director of Customs and Border Protection and head of the Secret Service, officials said.
This could work:
Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, who has known Mr. Kelly for two decades, said the fact that the president agreed to have family members report to the new chief of staff was “a really important first step.”
“The question is, does it last?” he added. “But it sends a powerful signal to the rest of the people in the White House.”
Mr. Gates, who was also Mr. Kelly’s boss as defense secretary, recalled the times he sat with Mr. Kelly at the Pentagon across a small conference table once used by Jefferson Davis when he was secretary of war. Mr. Gates would tell Mr. Kelly what he was planning to do and Mr. Kelly would say, “You could do it that way.”
What that really meant, Mr. Gates said, was “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” Mr. Kelly would then offer another – often better – option, Mr. Gates said.
That might not work with Donald Trump:
Mr. Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff before he went to the Pentagon, said he urged Mr. Kelly to buy a “big bottle of Scotch” when he agreed to take the job.
A White House spokeswoman did not know if he had gotten around to buying one yet, but said the new chief of staff preferred Irish whiskey.
He might have already stocked up Irish whiskey, given this odd paragraph buried in a Wall Street Journal discussion of all this:
Soon after accepting the chief of staff position, Mr. Kelly picked up C. S. Forester’s novel, The General. The 1936 novel chronicles a British officer’s rise through the ranks until finally his mediocrity catches up with him and he causes thousands of men to be unnecessarily killed. Mr. Kelly had also read it six months ago when he was given the job of Homeland Security secretary, and before taking top command posts as a Marine general – as a reminder of what to avoid as a leader.
C. S. Forester all also wrote all those Horatio Hornblower novels – about a fictional Napoleonic Wars era Royal Navy officer. Ernest Hemingway said “I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know” and Winston Churchill said “I find Hornblower admirable” and Gene Roddenberry said he modeled Captain Kirk in Star Trek on Horatio Hornblower. He made William Shatner read those books. Hornblower is courageous, intelligent, and skilled, but burdened by his intense reserve, introspection, and self-doubt. He’s often “unhappy and lonely” – but he has a hyper-developed sense of duty. Gregory Peck played him in the movies – as Atticus Finch at sea. Kelly reading Forester makes sense.
Dustin McKissen says Kelly won’t last long:
His title may be chief of staff, but Kelly is really more like the perfect chief operating officer for an organization with a CEO who has a constant need for the spotlight.
And though the White House is likely to be far more productive and functional with an empowered COO, President Donald Trump’s inability to share the spotlight means John Kelly will ultimately be pushed out the door.
Right now, Trump seems to understand that he’s on the brink of a failed presidency, and he has brought in a COO to create a functioning team.
That’s the real problem:
What if John Kelly is as good at being the White House chief of staff as he was at being a Marine? What if he gets credit for keeping the president from tweeting the country’s way into a war or recession? Will there suddenly be an issue of TIME magazine with “President Kelly” on the cover? If that happens, we’re likely to relive a familiar chain of events: a string of negative tweets, a Trump interview with The New York Times, and, eventually, Sarah Huckabee Sanders wishing Kelly the best of luck.
McKissen says that this will end badly for Kelly.
Ultimately John Kelly will be fired because he will do a good job at bringing order and stability to the White House and his integrity will make the entire country – Republican and Democrat – look to him as a source of stability and sanity.
No matter how much he discourages it or avoids it, the spotlight will shine brightly on John Kelly specifically because he is an actual leader.
And Donald Trump is a CEO who never shares the spotlight.
In Vanity Fair, T. A. Frank argues the other way:
We can see now why Reince Priebus never had a chance. He was a supplicant to whom the job of chief of staff was given as a reward. People don’t take orders from supplicants. Maybe an exceptional operator could have changed the power balance after landing the gig, but Priebus was no such person, and bad advice on how to deal with Capitol Hill sealed his fate. Kelly, by contrast, is the reluctant appointee, and Trump is the supplicant. According to reports, Trump began to court Kelly for the new role as early as in May, but Kelly declined the job and increased his leverage by the day. No wonder, then, that Trump is reported to be on his best behavior…
Gone are the early-morning Twitter rants, replaced by actual statements of accomplishment. Even Trump’s single combative tweet, a defense of social media as the “only way for me to get the truth out” in the face of “the Fake News Media and Trump enemies,” had an air of face-saving defiance. Perhaps Kelly ringingly endorsed Trump’s declaration that tweeting would continue while recommending ongoing analysis of all statements going forward to see if results lined up with intention. Who knows? If Twitter discipline continues for two weeks, though, we’ll know that Kelly is the reason, and we’ll also have a steady indicator of whether Kelly’s influence is holding up or on the wane.
But Kelly is the man, for now:
You can always come up with an unfavorable explanation for someone’s choices – hubris and lust for power are often those assigned to senior White House officials – but in Kelly’s case they wouldn’t make much sense. Kelly doesn’t need the gig. He has had a distinguished career on which he could easily cash in for hefty rewards. Nor will he have fun. At DHS, Kelly enjoyed autonomy and White House admiration. At the White House, he must daily negotiate the impulses of a mercurial boss who goes through people like a poacher through elephants. What makes the most sense is a non-cynical take: that Kelly is a patriot with a sense of duty. When you’ve lost your son to war, as Kelly did in 2010, you tend to stop worrying about career poles, if you ever did. The task of repairing the performance of your commander in chief, the man in charge of others like your late son, becomes not only impossible to refuse but deeply personal.
That in turn may change Trump:
There hasn’t been much good to say about Trump in a long time, but recruiting Kelly suggests that he learns, very belatedly, from his mistakes, and that he’s capable of some small degree of humility. What may finally be dawning on Trump, long after realistic possibilities of repair, is an old observation of management scholar Peter Drucker on promotions. “The things you did to get the promotion are almost certainly the wrong things to do now,” Drucker wrote, warning that failure to recognize this rule underlies most unsuccessful promotions. Trump keeps remembering how his impulsivity and trash-talking during the campaign got him into the White House. He didn’t seem to consider that these might be drawback.
General Kelly can help him with that, but Jennifer Rubin says that there are a few things that Kelly has to tell Trump right now:
There was no massive voting fraud in 2016. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 3 million votes.
None of the health-care plans put forth by Republicans that you endorsed cover “everybody”; they all resulted in millions fewer insured people. The House bill for which you threw a celebratory Rose Garden gathering cut Medicaid substantially. You promised you wouldn’t do that in the campaign.
The Russia investigation is not fake news or a hoax. Contrary to your representations, the campaign had multiple contacts with the Russians. Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner all made representations that were not true concerning contacts with Russian officials.
You involved yourself in creating a fake cover story for the June 2016 meeting with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort. Combined with the firing of James B. Comey, the special prosecutor may have a case for obstruction of justice.
If you fire Robert S. Mueller III, it is quite possible Congress will move to impeach you.
Russia did interfere with our election and is engaged in widespread cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns against the West. These are facts. Denying them makes you seem like a Russian pawn, or crazy. Congress is not responsible for the state of relations with Russia; Russia is.
Your approval is really, really low and you are losing some of your core base, including whites with no college degree. As a result of that and failure of health-care reform, Republicans in Congress now ignore you. They will be more likely to send legislation you don’t like and to insist on vigorous investigation of the Russia scandal.
The vast majority of Americans really want you to stop tweeting. You sound uninformed and unhinged in many of these missives. You’ve diminished the office of the presidency.
Your son-in-law and daughter are unqualified to be senior advisers. Jared has made some really bad recommendations (like hiring Anthony Scaramucci and firing Comey). They should go back to New York. Honestly, you’d be doing them a favor.
Stephen Miller is awful on TV. He came across as a bully and someone who does not like immigrants (which may be candid but is nevertheless unacceptable to most Americans). He should not go on TV again.
You ran as a populist but your agenda on taxes is tilted toward the very rich. You will allow Democrats to take back their white working-class voters if you keep governing like a pro-billionaire right-winger. You should not have so many Goldman Sachs billionaires in the Cabinet. Rich people are not necessarily smart or good at governing.
The State Department is a hot mess. You need a new secretary of state.
Trade protectionism is bad for America; NAFTA did not cause us to lose millions of jobs.
We need immigrants for economic growth. The Cotton-Perdue bill, according to more than a thousand economists, would be a disaster.
A wall on the southern border is an expensive, unnecessary boondoggle.
Donald Trump does not want to hear any of that, and Rubin sees this as unsustainable:
Without these lies there would be virtually nothing for Trump to say and nothing left of his presidency. If Kelly ever decided to level with Trump, he’d need to tell the president that his behavior is unbecoming and that his “ideas” are daft. And that’s the problem. There’s no way to tell this president the truth and remain in the administration.
That may not be true, because Jared Keller sees a subtle military coup in progress:
Last month, President Donald Trump suddenly replaced Chief of Staff Reince Priebus with retired Marine General John Kelly. The shake-up made Kelly the fourth general to ascend to the highest echelons of the executive branch of the Trump administration, following Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. These men are all good chums – Mattis and Kelly recommended each other for Secretary of Defense back in November, and Dunford is apparently one of Kelly’s closest friends. Their combined presence also constitutes a military power unprecedented in decades; there haven’t been this many generals in the executive branch since World War II.
Trump, using the power of the Appointments Clause under Article II of the Constitution, can appoint whomever he wants to whatever post he wants. But by surrounding himself with “the generals,” Trump may have inadvertently allowed this coterie of military leaders to reshape the White House.
Consider the evidence:
The Kelly clampdown has coincided with a two-pronged campaign to restore stability in the executive branch’s national security apparatus. In June, Trump formally gave Mattis “full authority” to determine troop levels in Afghanistan. Mattis and then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly even made a secret pact to babysit the president during his time in office, with one of the generals “remaining in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House,” according to the Associated Press.
The other prong of attack came from McMaster in what’s being characterized in conservative circles as a “purge” on the National Security Council of Trump loyalists handpicked by Steve Bannon to shape the president’s national security apparatus. On August 2nd, McMaster reportedly fired Senior Director for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Michael Flynn holdover reportedly protected by Jared Kushner and Bannon. Just a week before, McMaster fired top Middle East aide Army Colonel Derek Harvey, also a Flynn staffer, in favor of “his own guy” per Politico. And, on July 21st, McMaster ousted Director for Strategic Planning Rich Higgins. According to an August 3rd report in the Washington Free Beacon, McMaster isn’t done ousting Trump’s faction of Bannon loyalists.
This, however, may be a good thing:
It’s an institutional return to normalcy after months of far-right effort to radically transform decades of institutional memory. Bannon staked his role in the administration on the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” even going so far as establishing a “Strategic Initiatives Group,” a shadow forum within the executive branch designed to undermine the traditional NSC. (The SIG was dissolved after Bannon was booted from the NSC’s principals committee in April.) Cohen-Watnick, the now-former intelligence director, was implicated in collaborating with Representative Devin Nunes (R-California) in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. And Higgins was reportedly canned after publishing an unhinged memo claiming that Trump was “under sustained attack from subversive forces both within and outside the government … including globalists, bankers, the ‘deep state,’ and Islamists,” per The Atlantic.
McMaster’s NSC purge, taken in the context of Kelly’s crackdown on the Oval Office, reflects the exact strategy of containment that the latter discussed with Mattis in the early weeks of the administration. As Kelly is jousting with Trump’s political family (and, in some cases, his literal family), McMaster is cleaning house of the ideologues who feed Trump’s own quixotic impulses. All the while, Mattis and Dunford are working to keep America’s enemies at bay. Gone is the governmental inexperience and ideological blindness that marred the first six months of the Trump administration.
Now the generals are in charge:
Trump will remain ensconced in the Oval Office, and he will continue to clash with his generals… But just as Abraham Lincoln battled with George McClellan (and Barack Obama with “Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal), the generals have arrived to counterbalance their commander-in-chief – and they’re not going anywhere.
That’s a coup, and Peter Baker notes the resistance:
President Trump defended Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his embattled national security adviser, on Friday in the face of a full-bore campaign by the nationalist wing of his political coalition accusing him of undermining the president’s agenda and calling for his dismissal.
General McMaster has angered the political right by pushing out several conservatives on the national security staff and cautioning against ripping up the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama without a strategy for what comes next. His future has been in doubt amid speculation that Mr. Trump might send him to Afghanistan.
But after two days of unrelenting attacks on General McMaster by conservative activists and news sites, complete with the Twitter hashtag #FireMcMaster, the president weighed in to quash such talk. “General McMaster and I are working very well together,” he said in a statement emailed to The New York Times. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”
Trump still loves his imaginary generals – winners, unpredictable, and not especially nice guys – but he never understood real generals. It’s that hyper-developed sense of duty, and they just won. He just lost. Someone has to save the country until the next election. Then the generals can stand down. Then it will be time for Irish whiskey.