Politics & Policy

Being President Kelly

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leans on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, October 19, 2017. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President John Kelly serves at the sufferance of tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump.

The president of the United States has been in a low-level public pissing match with his chief of staff, Marine general John F. Kelly. That’s an unusual situation, inasmuch as presidents historically have won these things by default, though Lyndon Baines Johnson was plagued by insecurity and, according to legend, once exposed himself to a group of staffers, asking: “Does that look presidential or what?”

Trump’s current situation does not look very presidential at all.

Kelly got Trump’s dander up by referring to recent presidential statements on border security as “not informed,” insisting that Trump is — dreadful Washington phrase! — “evolving” on the issue. And the president is evolving on it, that evolution being made inevitable by the utter preposterousness of his campaign promises. Long gone is his blustery insistence that there will be a wall (not a mere fence) from San Diego to Brownsville and that the government of Mexico will pay for it. Trump now is talking about renovating some fencing, maybe adding a bit, and not bothering Enrique Peña Nieto et al. too much about the bill. That’s an evolution for Trump, who has a pronounced disinclination to pick up the tab for anything.

That the president may be uninformed is a trope of Kelly’s. In addition to describing the president as “not informed” about the subject of his keynote issue, he has described his job as chief of staff as ensuring that the staff “better informs” the president on a range of issues. “If the administration fails, if the president of the United States is uninformed one time and makes the wrong decision, that’s on me,” Kelly told Fox News.

Trump, in his usual passive-aggressive way, resorted to sub-tweeting: “The Wall is the Wall,” he wrote with his by now familiar erratic capitalization. “It has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.” Trump later called Kelly in for an Apprentice-style dressing down, according to the New York Times, which also reports that Kelly, who brought some semblance of order to the chaotic Trump administration, repeatedly has threatened to quit unless his orders are followed — including by the president.

Donald Trump runs a Twitter account. President John Kelly is running the administration.

President Trump likes tough guys, and he thinks of himself as a tough guy. Remember all that palling around with Mike Tyson during the campaign and his fondness for Vladimir Putin? “Tough” is practically Trump’s favorite adjective, and adjectives are his favorite class of words. The problem is that Trump wants to be a tough guy — desperately — but isn’t one. He’s a rich kid from New York City who never in his life has been obliged to lift anything heavier than money.

Donald Trump is soft. John Kelly is hard: a lifelong Marine who rose to the rank of general and led the U.S. Southern Command and the Multi-National Force West in Iraq. His bio lists 21 military decorations and awards. Trump, ever insecure, once said that his experience as a child cadet in a military boarding school gave him more training and experience than people who actually served in the armed forces but developed medical history’s only self-healing case of bone spurs when it came time to serve in Vietnam. Trump is a familiar sort of man who mistakes being hard for being a sadist, and thinks that his own well-documented appetite for inflicting suffering and humiliation on others makes him tough.

Trump likes to think of himself as an “alpha male,” as a natural-born leader, but he has instinctively adapted himself to the role of second banana in his relationship with Kelly. In all his passive-aggressive subtweeting at his chief of staff — a man who serves solely at his pleasure — Trump never even had the courage to name him.

Trump is a familiar sort of man who mistakes being hard for being a sadist.

Many conservatives have been pleasantly surprised with the first year of the Trump administration. But even those who have most enthusiastically accommodated their immortal souls to Trump and Trumpism detect in the presidency a peculiar bifurcation: It is difficult to believe that the man behind the Twitter account is the same man who helped to deliver Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and a territorial corporate-tax system to the United States. There is a relatively simple possible explanation for that: He isn’t.

President John Kelly serves at the sufferance of tweeter-in-chief Donald Trump, the little pilot fish who has mistaken himself for a great white shark. (Oh, Trump and “Shark Week!”) Let us hope that that symbiotic relationship continues to thrive for as long as the Trump presidency endures.

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