Confronted with a West Wing that treated policymaking as a free-for-all, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, is instituting a system used by previous administrations to limit internal competition — and to make himself the last word on the material that crosses the president’s desk.
It’s a quiet effort to make Trump conform to White House decision-making norms he’s flouted without making him feel shackled or out of the loop. In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide — White House staff secretary Rob Porter, a little-known but highly regarded Rhodes scholar who overlapped with Jared Kushner as an undergraduate at Harvard — will review all documents that cross the Resolute desk.
The new system, laid out in two memos co-authored by Kelly and Porter and distributed to Cabinet members and White House staffers in recent days, is designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted. Kelly’s deputy, Kristjen Nielson, is also expected to assume an integral role.
The keystone of the new system is a “decision memo” that will — for each Trump policy — integrate the input of Cabinet agencies and policy councils and present the president with various options, as well as with the advantages and drawbacks of each one.
The Kelly-Porter reforms are in many ways a reversion to the habits of previous administrations, particularly in their attempt to ensure competing views are completely and straightforwardly presented to the president.
“There is a White House policy process, tried and true, that is not endemic to Republicans or Democrats, and it includes having the various policy councils bringing in the information and perspectives from agencies and elsewhere and then having the staff secretary’s office share the policy council’s memo around the office to get it vetted,” said Tevi Troy, who served as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy under George W. Bush.
Porter, a Harvard Law graduate, has assumed a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in the administration, working even before Kelly’s arrival to create form from chaos and to serve as an honest broker between the competing factions that populate the Trump White House. He’s no stranger to the GOP’s vast ideological spectrum, having served as chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and before that as counsel to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), an Ivy League blueblood and George H.W. Bush partisan, as well as to tea partier Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).