How does a new chief of staff establish his authority? By acting as a doorman, first and foremost. Axios’ Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan report that John Kelly has succeeded in controlling access to the Oval Office, part of his mission to instill discipline on a chaotic West Wing:
The door to the Oval Office used to be wide open, with favored officials drifting in and out — even in the middle of meetings — to kibitz with Trump.
Now, the door is closed. Gen. John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, has taken control in dramatic fashion, and is already imposing unmistakable signs of order after just a few days on the job[.]
The increased discipline has improved the atmosphere and the focus already — on both sides of the door. Trump has picked up his game to match Kelly’s new businesslike approach, preparing better for the meetings that do take place in the Oval Office:
Even POTUS appears to be trying to impress his four-star handler, picking up his game by acting sharper in meetings and even rattling off stats.
Sounds impressive. In fact, it sounds so impressive that it still sounds suspiciously like someone in the White House trying to make Kelly look too impressive. The more Kelly gets credit for order in the White House, the more Trump may question whether Kelly’s stealing his thunder. The added anecdote about Trump trying to impress Kelly seems especially calculated to get Trump jealous of Kelly’s press. Perhaps all of that backbiting and scheming left with Kelly’s hiring, and the brief Robespierrian reign of Anthony Scaramucci might have been enough to discourage any further descent into palace intrigue. Perhaps.
The Associated Press report from yesterday also sounded a cautionary note on how long Kelly might go before tripping over the Machiavellian environs of the Trump White House:
David B. Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor writing a book on chiefs of staff, applauded Kelly for doing “things that should have been done on Day One of Reince Priebus’s tenure.” He said Scaramucci’s removal sent a clear message “that going off-script and being undisciplined” would no longer be tolerated at the White House.
But Cohen wondered how long Mr. Trump would go before undermining Kelly.
“President Trump is his own worst enemy,” he said. “He instinctively likes to be his own chief of staff and he’s a pretty awful one.”
On the other hand, Trump’s also no dummy. He might have thought his usual organizational environment of pitting everyone against everyone else would transfer to the public sector, but he had six months to see the results, and they were pretty dismal. Trump appears to have learned a hard lesson and is changing his approach to meet the challenges. The immediate success of Kelly’s leadership can only help Trump feel as though he made the right decision.
It’s only been a few days, so don’t get hopes too high. So far, though, it appears Kelly is doing an expert job at the first task of any competent chief of staff — gatekeeping. It might not be as dramatic as it sounds, or as it was in Fellowship of the Rings, but it’s not easy — especially when working for someone who isn’t known to appreciate formality and discipline.