I … but … wait. What?
When I first read the WSJ headline, I thought it referred to *this year’s* election, which would make sense. Choosing a new chief of staff is an important decision and Trump will be distracted this fall with campaigning for Republican candidates. For the sake of continuity, he and Kelly might have agreed to not make changes before the midterms. There’ll be time enough to replace him during the lame-duck session.
But then I read it again. He’s not staying for this year’s election, he’s staying for the 2020 election. Two more years — at least! — for Kelly in a job which generates buzzy new stories every week about how diminished his responsibilities have become and how little interest he seems to have in what few responsibilities remain. Why would Trump want to keep him? And why would Kelly want to be kept?
White House chief of staff John Kelly told staff on Monday that President Trump had asked him to remain in his post through the 2020 election, White House officials said, a request that comes as tensions between the two men have eased in recent months.
Mr. Kelly told staff he agreed to the president’s request, one of the officials said.
Mr. Kelly, who on Monday marked his one-year anniversary as chief of staff, had been widely expected to leave the White House some time this summer.
I know, I know: “Fake news! Kelly loves the job and Trump loves him!” The flaw in that theory is that Kelly often doesn’t try to hide his exasperation with Trump. Forget the faces he made on camera when Trump went off on Germany at a NATO breakfast a few weeks ago. Remember this answer from March when he was asked at a DHS event how he’s enjoying his job as chief?
The reports of Trump and Kelly clashing and Kelly being frozen out of meaningful influence in the West Wing aren’t coming from a single left-wing newspaper with a grudge against Trump. They’re ubiquitous across media. It can’t be that everyone’s sources are lying, even accounting for the fact that Kelly has enemies within the inner circle who might want to badmouth him to the press. So we’re back to the question: Why would Trump keep him on any longer than he needs to? Doesn’t he want a chief he’s more comfortable with for the second half of his first term?
If you’re thinking the WSJ might have bad information about what Kelly said this morning, it doesn’t sound like it:
NBC News confirms Trump asked WH Chief of Staff John Kelly to stay thru 2020 election, and Kelly has agreed @PeterAlexander
— Jesse Rodriguez (@JesseRodriguez) July 31, 2018
From @johnrobertsFox — MULTIPLE SOURCES TELL FOX NEWS THAT PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS ASKED JOHN KELLY TO STAY ON AS CHIEF OF STAFF THROUGH 2020.. after all the stories about this.. this seems pretty definitive.
— Bret Baier (@BretBaier) July 31, 2018
My best guess at Trump’s thinking on this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He has more control over his administration’s agenda right now than he had when Kelly first came aboard; he’s clearly won the test of wills with the chief over gatekeeping and access to the president. If Kelly’s no longer a hindrance to him in seeing whom he wants to see, talking to whom he wants to talk, and doing what he wants to do, why push him out? The new guy might be a pain in the ass the way Kelly himself was initially. Some Trump buddies have allegedly suggested to him that he should operate without a chief at all — but that’s the sort of situation Trump enjoys right now, for all intents and purposes, with the added benefit that he has Kelly around to lend a hand as needed. Plus, keeping Kelly in the job at least maintains an image of normalcy in the West Wing that would be lost if the chief’s role was left vacant. A Chief In Name Only may be just what Trump craves at this point.
As for why Kelly would want to fill that role … I just don’t know. A little influence is better than none at all, I guess? Or maybe he’s just enjoying having an extremely prominent sinecure, one where people pay close attention to what he thinks even if his actual boss doesn’t. Seems hard to believe that a Marine four-star would be willing to be reduced to that, though. Maybe today’s announcement by Kelly is nothing more than a red herring designed to get the media off his back: They’ve spent weeks writing “When will Kelly go?” stories in anticipation of his one-year anniversary on the job and will keep on writing them with every week that passes after that anniversary — unless he gives them a reason to stop. This might be his and Trump’s way to get the press to leave him alone for awhile as he quietly prepares to depart during the lame-duck session. Exit quotation from the Journal: “A White House official cautioned that while the plan is for Mr. Kelly to remain in his post through 2020, unforeseen circumstances could cause the plan to change.”
Update: Politico analyzed Kelly’s CINO status a few days ago and supports the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory of Trump’s view of the arrangement. “[F]or this president, keeping Kelly around offers the best of both worlds: somebody to blame when things go awry but nobody fettering his freedom of action.” There’s also this:
“[Trump] comes down for the day, and whatever he saw on ‘Fox and Friends,’ he schedules meetings based on that,” said one former White House official. “If it’s Iran, it’s ‘Get John Bolton down here!’ … If he’s seen something on TV or [was] talking to Hannity the night before, he’s got lots of flexibility to do whatever he wants to do.”