Does Kelly signal a new path for Trump?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

You could hear the collective exhaling in Washington as President Trump’s new chief of staff assumed his command Monday, after another awesome week in which Trump first seemed set on handing over his White House to a bombastic financier exactly like himself, then stood by as his mini-me publicly eviscerated the president’s loyal chief of staff, and then kicked them both to the curb in quick succession.

“No WH chaos!” Trump declared in a tweet, proving yet again that whenever the president wakes up tweeting, there’s pretty much a 100 percent chance that what he’s saying is the inverse of the truth.

Republicans are counting on John Kelly, a popular and decorated general, to put the presidency on a calmer course. They’re hoping Trump will actually listen to Kelly’s counsel and allow him to instill some discipline into the whole operation.

And yet they might be missing the point. Generals are great at plotting strategy and establishing protocols and getting supplies to the front. But even in war, they rely on a leader to define the political objective.

The pressing question here isn’t whether Kelly can run a more efficient White House than his predecessor. (Honestly, my kid’s camp counselor could pull that off.)

The question is: to what end?

As I’ve said before, it was always Trump’s second White House staff — not the training-wheels version — that was going to tell us what kind of president he ultimately intended to be. And if I were a Republican on the Hill right now, I’d be starting to wonder if Trump actually plans to be a Republican president, or some other kind altogether.

Remember that Trump is only nominally a Republican to begin with. When I met him in the late 1990s (we hung out at Trump Tower and went to dinner with Alec Baldwin, believe it or not), Trump was disdainful of politicians and their predictable ideologies, generally.

At that time, he was an avowed independent fluent in the language of libertarianism as it’s spoken on Wall Street — favoring strong borders along with lower taxes and less government interference, in both the boardroom and the bedroom.

Trump really only became a Republican, later, by default, because he despised President Obama as some kind of foreign-born interloper — a fiction he championed for years and for reasons I will leave to a psychologist. You’d have to believe he entered the Republican primaries last year because it was a whole lot easier than building an independent campaign from the ground up, and because the whole thing was more of a ratings stunt to begin with.

Only Trump’s primetime special turned into an extended run. And even by the time he won, Trump had no coterie of experienced advisers, and no plan for governing.

His choice of Reince Priebus as chief of staff probably signaled some combination of desperation on one hand — “Hey, you! That guy! You know something about Washington, right?” — and pragmatism on the other. Priebus represented the party apparatus, and giving him at least titular control of the White House was a way of trying to build instant relationships with Republicans who remained wary of the invading Huns.

Which might have been fine, except that Priebus never had Trump’s confidence, and he wasn’t prepared for the job. He was a Wisconsin party operative and able fundraiser who’d barely seen the inside of the White House, much less worked there. Priebus never had a chance.

For a few hours last week, it actually seemed that Trump was going to layer over Priebus with the outlandish Anthony Scaramucci, who appears in almost every photo I see with slicked hair and mirrored shades, as if he were auditioning to be Tom Cruise’s wingman in “Top Gun.” Alas, Scaramucci turned out to be like that solar eclipse everybody’s waiting for: breathtaking for an all-too-brief moment, then gone for good.

So Trump turns instead to Kelly, which at first glance seems reassuring for governing Republicans. This is, by all accounts, a serious and honorable man, someone who can restore a little functionality. He’s already served in much the same role for two secretaries of defense.

Kelly gives you the sense, at least, that if we wake up tomorrow to find that North Koreans have launched a missile at Anchorage, or that Russian tanks are streaming into Belarus, someone in charge at the White House will not be working off knowledge gleaned from a Tom Clancy novel.

But unlike virtually every chief of staff in recent memory, Kelly isn’t a known entity inside the party, either. As Doug Wilson, a Democrat who oversaw public affairs at the Pentagon during the Obama years, and who grew to deeply respect Kelly, told me this week: “To this day, I wouldn’t know what his party affiliation was.”

Kelly isn’t the guy you pick, after a legislative disaster like the one Republicans just suffered with health care, if you’re looking to lead your party into the midterm elections. He’s more like someone the ’90s Trump would have picked — unaligned and uncompromised by political alliances.

What this signals, perhaps, is that six months into his presidency, after a string of defeats in Congress and ugly approval ratings, Trump is starting to understand that his only path to success lies in becoming an independent president, rather than a party leader who looks to loyalists like an impostor.

Fevered rallies and white resentment got him through the primaries, and that’s still where most of his base lives. But for Trump to maintain any hold on the part of the electorate that provided his margin of victory, he needs to rediscover his inner reformer — the pragmatic billionaire who defined himself in opposition to strident ideologies and blatant self-interest.

If this turns out to be where Trump is going next, then I’d be cautiously supportive, or at least intrigued. The problem — and it’s a big one — is that if you want to chart a new course for American politics, you have to have a sense of where you want to end up. You can’t be Teddy Roosevelt without having an actual governing platform, or at least a philosophical conviction.

Trump doesn’t have that, or at least not yet. He doesn’t know what tax reform means, beyond a bunch of big cuts. He doesn’t have any proposals to improve the political system itself, beyond this silly commission aimed at nonexistent voter fraud. He doesn’t have a plan to deal with the exploding cost of entitlement programs or the long-overdue modernizing of infrastructure.

In the absence of that, he dissembles and distracts. He provides answers — like banning transgender soldiers — to questions no one was asking. He falls back, always, on his emptiest impulse, which is to evoke some kind of emotion.

John Kelly is the right pick to be Trump’s first real chief of staff. He holds out the possibility, at least, of consensus and competence within a White House that isn’t just another subsidiary for the dilettante Trump kids to play with.

But he can’t provide the vision, or the agenda. For that, the general awaits his orders, and so do the rest of us.

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