OPINION | John Kelly is the right man to get Trump’s house in order

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There aren’t many four-star generals. There are fewer than 50 across all the services. The Marine Corps has just two. Throughout our history, when distinguished general officers ventured into the world of politics, it was at the highest level — president of the United States.

We’ve had a lot of generals who became president. Dwight Eisenhower was the last (and he actually had five stars). But only two four-star generals have served as White House chief of staff — Alexander Haig and John Kelly, who on Monday was sworn in to the post. About the time Kelly was coming through the front door, Anthony Scaramucci was going out the back, a sign the general had won his first battle.

{mosads}Holding the second most powerful office in the White House is pivotal but not necessarily transformational. As Robert Strauss once told a previous chief executive, “There’s only one job in this town worth having, Mr. President, and you’ve already got it.” Ultimately, it’s the president who determines the course of any administration.


Taking stage after a bad act is usually an advantage. Last week may have been the worst for the new administration. From the Boy Scouts speech, to transgenders in the military, to the Ryan Lizza interview, to the vote on a “skinny repeal” of ObamaCare, things didn’t go exactly as hoped. The week culminated in the resignation of Reince Priebus, marking the shortest tenure of any White House chief of staff.

Enter John Kelly. Unlike Gen. Haig, who loved politics and even ran for president himself — although he never came up with a theme better than “shake a leg for Haig” — Gen. Kelly has said he has no time for this level of “toxic politics.”

Politics is at the core of the job he’s undertaken. How well he dilutes the level of toxicity may well be the measure of his success. Kelly takes his new post after a tumultuous week, even by Trump administration standards. The sharp elbows that exist in any White House have come with razor blades attached in recent days.

Restoring discipline — ensuring consistent messages, controlling the calendar and access to the Oval Office, and curbing West Wing infighting — will be job one for the new chief of staff.

Those are no easy tasks, but Kelly is ideally equipped for the challenge. He brings some vital assets. First, he’s liked and respected by the president. Trump loves high-ranking military brass, but Kelly stands out within that group.

Trump likes loyalty and strength. Kelly personifies both. He’s a Marine and a warrior. Alexander Haig got most of his stars inside the political world. John Kelly came with his.

His physical stature and Marine bearing will be important, not-to-be-underestimated assets in bringing a chaotic White House into order. He’s not going to flinch when confronted nor blink when under pressure. He’ll never appear weak. It’s simply not in his DNA.

Establishing command and control is in his wheelhouse. He got high marks for his tenure at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Now comes the much more daunting challenge of taking it to the highest levels of the executive branch.

Reversing the impression that the White House spins out of control will be the first test of Kelly’s mettle and leadership skills. He’ll have to inspire and motivate the senior staff to perform at levels necessary for a successful administration. He will have to demand a team that focuses on the mission and not on self. That will go a long way to curbing the flow of leaks, most of which are motivated by self interest.

Restoring professionalism and a team concept will require a reporting structure that funnels through him. Having open access to the Oval Office and a president who often responds to the last thing he’s heard is an invitation to disaster. Look for Kelly to take control of that access as well as the calendar.

Kelly will have to be a true gatekeeper, controlling both the flow into the Oval Office and out of the White House. That discipline, something a Marine Corps general knows a thing or two about, will produce a unified message and unified team.

Replacing dissension with cooperation doesn’t mean there won’t be tensions. Tensions are the daily reflection of working the levers of power. Kelly doesn’t need to make the eagles fly in formation. He needs to keep them from devouring each other. He should be able to do much of that by the shear strength of his personality.

The agenda must now come first. There will be more gaming out of strategies rather than instinctive action and freewheeling. An improved decision-making style will result in message cohesion and consistency. Kelly must help set the tone, develop the message and keep the entire team on that message.

All of this is a cultural shift. It will take some time. It’s going to be a process, not an event. There’s an opportunity for a fusion of establishment Republicans, movement conservatives and populist outsiders who fueled the Trump victory. If Kelly can help bring those elements together, he’ll be lauded as a hero.

The elevation of John Kelly allows a fresh start for an administration just six months old. Restoring the order and discipline necessary to carry out the Trump agenda are well within Kelly’s proven abilities. But he’ll need to have the full support and imprimatur of the man with the most important job.

Without the president giving him full authority to restore discipline, add structure and enhance attitude, Kelly won’t be successful. With the full support of the boss, he’ll be able aggressively move the agenda and be fearless in the face of opposition.

I used to think Paul Ryan had the toughest job in D.C. It looks like John Kelly just took the title.

Charles R. Gerow is an educator, lawyer and nationally recognized expert in strategic communications. He is the CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based strategic communications firm. He began his career on the campaign staff of Ronald Reagan and has held major positions in every presidential campaign since. In 2016, he served as national co-chairman for Carly Fiorina for President.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags administration Anthony Scaramucci chief of staff Congress Donald Trump John Kelly Paul Ryan Politics Reince Priebus Republicans White House
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