John Kelly, Scott Pruitt, and the Epic Turnover of the Trump Administration

Is finally on his way out? Now that President Trump has accepted the resignation of his embattled E.P.A. chief, , the fate of his embattled chief of staff is the key drama of this drama-plagued Administration. Last July, when Kelly was appointed to the job, the retired Marine general was portrayed as a no-nonsense savior, who would “restore order” to Trump’s feuding, factionalized White House. But in recent months the question has become not whether Kelly could tame Trump but how soon Trump would get rid of Kelly. In February, the Times Magazine wondered, “How Long Can John Kelly Hang On?” In March, Kelly seemed to be clinging to his job day by day (and was later reported to have threatened to quit). In April, the Washington Post ran what amounted to a long obituary for Kelly’s tenure, tracking “the downward arc” of a chief of staff whose time in the White House was marked by “recurring and escalating clashes” with the President.

Since then, barely a week has gone by without a new report about Trump shopping around for Kelly’s replacement. Eventually, the Washington conventional wisdom settled on the notion that Kelly was sticking around only to make it to his one-year anniversary in the job, which is on July 31st. A week ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kelly was definitely, absolutely, maybe, really leaving this time, and that the move could come either in a few days or at the end of this month. Asked, after the Journal report, if Kelly was leaving, Trump said, “I don’t know.”

It may not even matter if Kelly makes it to the one-year mark. The President has, by all accounts, effectively unleashed himself from the strictures, processes, and constraints that Kelly sought to impose on him. When I was on Chuck Todd’s daily MSNBC show during one of the earlier rounds of Kelly-departure speculation, the host compared Kelly’s plight to that of moderate Republicans accused of being RINOs (Republicans in name only): Kelly, he said, was now a “CHINO”— a chief of staff in name only.” The CHINO phase of Kelly’s tenure has now lasted far longer than anyone expected; essentially, it has become a new reality for a tumultuous White House in which Trump himself has assumed the role of chief of staff.

This Trump Unchained era is merely proof that no aide, not even a brusque Marine general with a chest full of medals, is going to bring order to a President determined to have his own way. It’s now clear that Trump is making major decisions without even a nod to the process and order that Kelly was supposedly bringing to his office; no one pretends that major moves, such as the risky nuclear summit with North Korea or recent conflicts with Congress over immigration and the budget, are the result of anything other than the President’s own spur-of-the-moment strategizing. At the same time, Trump has systematically undermined Kelly’s authority, telling both his new national-security adviser, John Bolton, and his chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, that they should report to him directly, not to Kelly. White House officials have also confirmed to reporters that many of the visible signs of Kelly’s authority—such as controlling access to Trump and the list of callers who can be put through to the President—are no more. Trump has, at times, gone to extreme lengths to get around his chief of staff, such as by conducting government business on his unsecured personal cell phone to avoid Kelly’s rules. (“An example,” CNN reported, of Kelly’s “waning influence.”) When I interviewed an outside Trump adviser whom the President consulted on a pressing national-security issue, the Republican told me a similar story: Trump, he recounted, had called him on a personal cell phone. When the adviser learned that the call wasn’t on a secure line, he warned Trump not to tell him what he was planning, but simply to listen. The President, who made so much of Hillary Clinton’s sloppy handling of confidential communications, was now apparently so eager to get around his own chief of staff that he was willing to take such risks.

Turnover among the White House staff, already record-setting in Trump’s first year, has spiked recently, now that no one is really in charge. Late last month, Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar who has tracked White House staff during the past six Presidencies, reported that the Trump White House has an astonishing turnover rate of sixty-one per cent so far among its top-level advisers. No other Administration she has tracked comes close: Trump’s two immediate predecessors were at fourteen per cent (Barack Obama) and five percent (George W. Bush) at this point in their Presidencies. Bill Clinton, the highest after Trump, was at forty-two per cent, and that number was mostly made up of advisers who were reassigned to other senior White House roles, not fired or pushed out, according to Kumar.

The Trump Cabinet has been similarly tumultuous: Pruitt’s departure, on Thursday, adds to a list that already included a fired Secretary of State, a fired Secretary of Health and Human Services, and a fired Veteran Affairs Secretary, as well as a vacancy that was created when Kelly moved from the Department of Homeland Security to replace Trump’s fired first chief of staff, Reince Priebus. All together, Trump’s Cabinet has the fastest turnover rate of any Administration in a hundred years. Tenures are so short that Kumar is now reporting on the turnover among the second and third waves of aides. And it could be that Trump has no problem with this situation, or even with the seemingly untenable situation of having a chief of staff who is regularly reported to be on his way out. Over the past few months, Kelly has looked increasingly like a dead man walking, and “that may be what Trump wants,” Kumar told me on Thursday.

When we look back at the Trump Administration, this will be one of its most distinguishing characteristics: West Wing comings and goings without precedent, leaving policies muddled and the entire political world uncertain of whom to deal with aside from the President himself. Kelly used to leave the office every day joking bleakly that he’d never come back. Just in the past few weeks, as Kelly’s fate has hung in limbo, two other key White House advisers have announced their exits: Joe Hagin, a deputy chief of staff and an organizational specialist who brought rare institutional knowledge of how White Houses are supposed to function, from stints working for Reagan and both Bushes; and Marc Short, Trump’s chief legislative liaison and congressional-vote counter, who reportedly told colleagues in June of his plans to leave a job that could become even more crucial if the G.O.P. majorities on Capitol Hill are diminished or wiped out in November. Many others are also reportedly considering leaving, including Dan Scavino, who is one of the last of the Trump’s early campaign advisers still working for the President, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and her deputy, Raj Shah. On Thursday, the White House formally announced the appointment of a new deputy chief of staff, the former Fox News executive Bill Shine, to oversee communications, making him the sixth person assigned that responsibility.

This, to say the least, is not normal. It might seem self-evident, but it bears repeating: Trump, whatever else he accomplishes, will certainly go down in the record books as the worst manager of the White House in modern times. And not only is this state of affairs not normal, it’s no way to run even a small organization, never mind a country. A senior European official recently told me that every time he shows up at the White House there is a new aide to meet with him, because the last one he sat down with has since been cashiered or fled. As each successive wave of aides comes and goes, what little institutional knowledge remains in the White House is further diminished.

 

 

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