Nothing was clearer this week than the fact that the White House under Donald Trump is experiencing a soul-sucking vacuum in leadership that his new chief of staff, former Marine general John Kelly, has stepped into.
All aspects of the federal government are in open rebellion against their commander in chief. Congressional Republicans are sending him bills he is loath to sign while ignoring his pleas to pass the one he wants. His military commanders are uniformly ignoring the spontaneous transgender ban he decreed last week via twitter. His cabinet heads, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, are doing their best to pretend their boss doesn't exist when he, for instance, blames China for North Korea's behavior and Tillerson comes back with, "We certainly don't blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea" (i.e. please ignore our idiot pr*sident).
The extraordinary lack of loyalty extends straight inside the walls of the West Wing, which has been leaking like a sieve since Day 1. But this week yielded a truly unprecedented moment when the entire transcripts of Trump's early phone calls with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were turned over to the Washington Post. How?
Produced by White House staffers...
The conversations revealed Trump as a capricious and petulant negotiator who was far more concerned with his image than the needs or policy concerns of the country. His posturing was unsurprising, yes, but also noteworthy for the sheer weakness and ineptitude it displayed.
But the leak itself put an exclamation point on the extent to which Trump's own staffers are willing to betray him. They clearly believe he is dangerously unfit to be president, and he very obviously inspires no loyalty whatsoever among the ranks of the people who are serving him.
Between the Congressional revolt, bureaucratic insubordination, and internal betrayals, Trump represents, in every respect, a total failure in leadership.
Then there's John Kelly. Given the discipline and order sewn into the makeup of a highly successful military figure like Kelly and the chaos that roars through Trump's veins, the question has quickly become whether Trump and Kelly could even co-exist let along thrive in proximity to each other. Could Kelly possibly lace up the disheveled Trump enough for his White House to project some semblance of functionality?
Kelly clearly did not relish the idea of taking the job. He turned Trump down several times over subsequent months and reportedly contemplated quitting after Trump fired Comey. And yet, the former general knows the risks posed by having such an obvious void at the helm of the most powerful country in the world. As conservative commentator Steve Schmidt noted on MSNBC’s Deadline:
The big take away from this week is the degree to which, when you put it all together, [Trump] is fueling instability. And I don't know what day it will be and I don't know what hour in that day, but we'll pay a price for that at some hour soon in this country.
Internationally, Trump has become a joke who invites slights from world leaders, like the former Mexican official who compared him unfavorably to Teddy Roosevelt. "He speaks loudly and carries a small stick,” he quipped after reading the leaked transcripts of his conversations.
At home, no one in Washington trusts Trump much less respects him, and almost no one fears him anymore either. His own party so distrusts him that they employed a procedural tool to block him from making recess appointments while they're away from Washington on recess.
It’s into that void that Kelly has stepped with considerable force. He appears to be a near constant presence next to Trump, monitoring his every interaction, limiting his access points, supervising meetings, and laying down the law on chain of command.
In fact, the more we learn about this relationship, the more one has to wonder whether what we are really watching is a soft military coup in the making.
One of the first hints about Kelly's motives came early this week in an eye-popping report from the AP that early in the administration, Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made a pact that at least one of them must remain in the country at all times to "keep tabs" on Trump and the orders quickly emanating from his White House.
Another glimpse into the military's relationship with Trump came alive in an NBC News piece detailing a disastrous meeting between Trump and his military leadership on Afghanistan.
Over nearly two hours in the situation room, according to the officials, Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.
One can imagine those present at the July 19 meeting, including Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, might have their doubts about the fitness of the guy commanding their armies. The same military commanders were clearly blindsided by Trump’s impromptu trans ban announcement a couple weeks later.
Combine that with the timing of Kelly accepting the chief of staff assignment—a couple months after Trump began wooing him.
People close to Mr. Kelly said he resisted weeks of entreaties by the president, beginning in May, before finally agreeing to replace Reince Priebus out of a sense of soldierly duty.
Kelly clearly had conditions for taking the post and making key staffing decisions was one of them. He immediately shored up Jeff Sessions' job stability and has quickly consolidated the power center of another general, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has not had a particularly easy relationship with Trump and some of his closest aides.
On Wednesday, [Kelly’s] third day on the job, he delivered a message about respecting chains of command, backing the decision of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to dismiss Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Kushner ally and staff member on the National Security Council. It was a move Mr. Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, had long opposed, according to two administration officials.
Overruling Kushner is no small feat in this White House and on Friday night news broke that Trump is even defending McMaster against his detractors. Yet pre-Kelly, McMaster’s two biggest stumbling blocks as national security adviser had been overcoming Trump's lack of focus and his ad hoc methods of gathering advice. As a telling Washington Post report noted:
Among his biggest challenges was holding the attention of the president. In classified briefings, Trump would frequently flit between subjects. [...] Trump had little time for in-depth briefings on the Afghanistan’s history, it’s complicated politics or its seemingly endless civil war. Even a single page of bullet points on the country seemed to tax the president’s attention span on the subject, said senior White House officials. [...]
Trump has shown little interest in a methodical and consensus-oriented approach. Impatient, incurious and determined to shake up U.S. foreign policy, Trump solicits input not only from McMaster but also from friends, family members, Cabinet secretaries and other counselors.
Trump's deficits in terms of management, mental acuity, and even a sense of duty are glaring and endless. But if Kelly is able to successfully streamline the input Trump is getting down to the McMasters, Mattis’s and Dunford’s of the world, for instance, we would essentially have a team of generals directing the incapacitated civilian who is supposedly running the show. As The New Republic's Brian Beutler noted:
The most alarming development is the one that ironically has official Washington the most relieved: the emergence of a trio of military officers (two retired, one actively serving) as de facto caretakers of the presidency.
Beutler dismisses the idea of a soft coup as "sensationalizing things" while arguing that Congress has an obligation to act on what has become patently obvious six months into Trump's tenure: He is not capable of faithfully executing the duties of the office that has been bestowed upon him.
On that point, I agree—Congress has a duty to act. But I don't think there's anything sensational about the notion that, for better or worse, the federal government is increasingly in the hands of the triumvirate of military men who appear to have taken their positions out of a sense of duty to country. And whatever their good intentions may be, they also come with a host of complications that will inevitably result in some unintended consequences.
Hopefully, those consequences will be the lesser of two evils.