With the firing/resignation of Anthony Scaramucci, the widespread skepticism about new White House chief of staff John Kelly has been replaced with respect for his decisiveness and his ability to get the president to give him leeway to run the West Wing as he sees fit. While not even a former Marine general will be able to stop President Trump from being Donald Trump, the end of Scaramucci’s memorable eleven-day run as communications director is a sign that Kelly is a force to be reckoned with.
But there’s a more important story line that has been lost here: The departures of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus. Or, in other words, the firing of the Republican party as we once knew it.
With Priebus out the door, the connection between the West Wing and what we used to call the GOP is gone. Kelly may be able to enforce some discipline on the staff. But while the former general may have strong views about illegal immigration, he lacks any real connection to the GOP or its congressional leaders. Once we get past the “new sheriff in town” narrative in which his competence will be the main story, it may be that his agenda is not dissimilar from Scaramucci’s: to purge the White House of traditional Republicans who want to protect the country from Trump’s whims. Kelly’s patriotism is unquestionable, but as is the case with the members of the Trump family who still hold key posts, his political loyalty is to the Donald and not to a set of ideas or an institution.
We’ve come a long way since the post-election transition, when Trump rewarded the party establishment for sticking with him during a turbulent underdog campaign by putting Priebus in charge of the White House. Many in the party had swallowed hard and worked for Trump’s election assuming that, once in office, he would be more like a conventional GOP president than a wild-card populist. The biggest concern then for mainstream Republicans was that former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon would create an alternative power base inside the White House as a senior adviser and would work to counteract Priebus’s agenda.
But like most of our assumptions about what a Trump presidency would look like, that belief was way off base. Bannon was marginalized — but Trump proved unable to focus on a legislative agenda of any kind. The White House chaos was led from the top as the president derailed his own message, falling victim to his lack of impulse control and to anger-management issues. He fired FBI director James Comey and then attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Kelly may bring a degree of order to the circus, but there is no longer a Republican hand on the White House rudder. The administration may be too dysfunctional and too hated by the Democrats to cut any deals with the opposition. But the divorce with the GOP establishment is now official.
Of course, there are still a lot of Republicans working for Trump, most prominently Vice President Mike Pence, who was heard today in Estonia sounding more like a man working in a traditional GOP administration than an America First true believer. There is also a cabinet that is, with some prominent exceptions, more conservative than any seen in Washington in recent memory. Yet instead of pondering who will be doing what to whom in the White House alignment, we should be thinking more about whether Kelly and those who survive his purge will be so out of touch with the views of congressional Republicans on many issues as to constitute something of a third-party government without a guiding ideology or vision.
Congress understands that there aren’t many conservative voices left in the White House.
The White House’s loud angst about the failed repeal-and-replace effort shouldn’t mislead us. As with so many of the president’s Twitter rants, there is less here even in the 140 characters per tweet than meets the eye. If Obamacare repeal failed, it was in no small measure because Trump provided neither the ideas nor the presidential leadership required to pass any major legislation. Nor, as the president is a former Democrat and onetime supporter of a single-payer scheme, is there any sense that Trump has any interest in a particular approach to replacing his predecessor’s signature health-care legislation. He applauded a House bill and then labeled it “mean,” illustrating how unreliable a partner he had become to congressional Republicans.
Trump loyalists respond to this by insisting that it is the congressional GOP, not the president, who has betrayed conservatism and the Republican base, though their failures and their inability to fight back against Democratic obstructionism. They say good riddance to the old Republican party and cheer the idea that a more populist, less ideological Trumpian GOP is replacing it. Given the failure of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make use of their majorities to pass a repeal-and-replace bill, it’s easy to understand that view. But Trump doesn’t seem interested in using the party he has usurped to pursue a coherent agenda that resembles the one Republican voters claimed to support.
It’s possible that respect for Kelly will help Trump on Capitol Hill. But Kelly’s pragmatism may only further tempt Trump to seek victories on health care, tax reform, or infrastructure spending with big-government measures that will further marginalize conservatives. Congress understands that there aren’t many conservative voices left in the White House, which is increasingly staffed by apolitical figures and Trump-family retainers and members. Rather than galvanize the GOP to achieve the legislative triumphs the president craves, what has just happened may only serve to deepen the party’s distrust of the White House. The end of Trump’s losing streak on Capitol Hill may be nowhere in sight.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online.