John Kelly was always doomed to fail as chief of staff

White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE discovered what every White House staff member should know about their job status: they serve at the pleasure of the president

Once any chief loses the confidence of POTUS, and to a lesser extent the confidence of the rest of the White House staff, they are a dead man walking. This was true of Donald Trump’s first short-lived chief, Reince Priebus, and true of Bill Daley, President Obama’s second chief of staff. And President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE is a reportedly difficult to work for and a mercurial person in general.

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When Trump loses confidence in a subordinate, they either survive long enough for his mood to change or more likely they are gone — perhaps fired unceremoniously like Priebus, who was sacked by tweet and booted from the presidential motorcade he was supposed to ride in. The fact that Kelly is a four-star Marine Corps general — and Trump has a reverence for generals — is perhaps one reason he was able to survive as long as he did.

As chief of staff, John Kelly was, in fact, able to accomplish a number of things. Upon his hiring, he purged the White House of many personnel who had no business working in the West Wing — staffers who were underqualified and overly controversial. Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka, director of communications for the Office of Public Liason Omarosa Manigult Newman, and communications director Anthony Scaramucci are just a few high-profile examples. However, a serious challenge Kelly had in initiating these staff changes was replacing those he purged with qualified and experienced individuals. Every Hill staffer knows that a job in the Trump White House can be a career-killer. Who would want to work in the White House at that price?

To his credit, Kelly was also able to instill some discipline and professionalization into an organization that had little when he took over. Though this was a necessary move following the turmoil of the Priebus era, Kelly did make enemies initiating a more hierarchical process that frustrated many staff who were used to having unfettered access to the Oval Office. Kelly’s more rigid organization reportedly also frustrated Trump himself, who was used to surrounding himself with a variety of subordinates who had walk-in privileges and, in general, doing whatever he wanted to do.

The forces that led to John Kelly’s undoing are relatively simple: (1) Trump is nearly impossible to work for, and (2) Kelly made a number of unforced errors, thus undermining Trump’s confidence in him.

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Kelly’s most important job was to impose organization, structure and stability in the West Wing. To a certain extent and for a limited time he did; however, he was never able to force the president himself to be disciplined. From his Twitter rants to his off-script comments at pool sprays, his off-the-cuff riffing during what is supposed to be a formal speech to his out-of-control performance at formal press briefings, such as the infamous press conference that occurred the day after the 2018 midterm election, Trump appears impervious to being handled in any way and sticking to a script. Letting “Trump be Trump” works for maintaining popularity among his base; however, it doesn’t work for a POTUS who needs to actually govern.

As the Trump-Kelly relationship demonstrates, though the chief of staff is the single-most important and powerful unelected person in a presidential administration, they are still only staff. Their power is simply a reflection of that which the president is willing to grant them. 

John Kelly also damaged himself by making unforced errors that a more experienced and politically savvy chief may not have. From calling an African-American member of Congress an “empty barrel” to his tone-deaf response and fumbling of the dismissal of Staff Secretary Rob Porter over his history of spousal abuse, a wiser chief would simply not have erred in these spectacularly public ways.

And John Kelly’s prickly relationship with first lady Melania Trump and her staff, difficulties with first daughter Ivanka Trump, and public shouting matches with national security adviser John Bolton harken back to the turbulent days of Ronald Reagan’s second chief of staff, Don Regan, who had a similarly fraught relationship with first lady Nancy Reagan and other administration members. 

All of these episodes pale in comparison, however, with John Kelly reportedly calling Trump an “idiot” to other White House staff, which likely sealed his fate months ago.

Like his boss, the first judgement of history will most certainly be unkind to John Kelly and his tenure at the White House. But from the very beginning, he was given a nearly impossible assignment that he was never truly empowered to accomplish: to bring order to the most chaotic presidential administration in modern history.

Without President Trump’s willingness to grant his chief the tools to discipline his staff and to be disciplined himself, Kelly was always destined to fail. And fail he did.

David B. Cohen is a professor of political science and assistant director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. He is currently co-authoring a manuscript to be published by University Press of Kansas titled “The President’s Chief of Staff: Evolution of a White House Institution.” Follow him on Twitter @POTUSProf