Kelly’s Boot Camp for Presidential Aides

August 03, 2017

John Kelly has injected some Marine discipline into a chaotic White House—for a few days, at least. Sworn in Monday as chief of staff, Mr. Kelly immediately cashiered the communications director Anthony Scaramucci, told other senior aides that they report to him, and curtailed Oval Office walk-in privileges. If he hadn’t taken these actions to reduce conflict, friction and end-runs in the West Wing, the retired general would have been neutered from the start.

But how long this new tone will endure is unclear, given Donald Trump’s mercurial moods. Will Mr. Trump resist Mr. Kelly’s efforts to impose order? Or will Mr. Trump realize that a strong chief of staff reflects a strong president, much as James Baker’s service revealed Ronald Reagan’s confident leadership?

There are many methods Team Trump might use to repair the early damage to the administration, some of which would work better than others. One not-so-promising approach would be appealing to the party loyalty of congressional Republicans—an idea Mr. Trump raised in his recent address to the Boy Scouts. “As the scout law says, a scout is trustworthy, loyal,” Mr. Trump said. “We could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

But Mr. Trump, having not been a paragon of partisan fealty, is hardly in a position to insist on it now. He was a registered Democrat or independent for most of his life. Before running for president some of his largest political contributions went to help elect Nancy Pelosi speaker in 2006. He later said his only criticism of her performance was that she hadn’t done enough to impeach President George W. Bush, whom Mr. Trump opposed in 2004 while supporting John Kerry.

Most congressional Republicans don’t believe they owe Mr. Trump. No matter how much they welcomed his victory, many feel they pulled him into office, not the other way around. Of the 22 Republican senators elected last fall, only five trailed Mr. Trump in their states. To its chagrin, the left-wing Daily Kos found only 34 of the 241 victorious Republican congressmen didn’t get more of the vote than Mr. Trump.

The absence of a close relationship between the White House and Republican congressional leaders creates another challenge. Some White House aides and outside allies have aimed to disrupt or even oust the GOP’s House and Senate leadership. Mr. Kelly should restrain these impulses during the coming battles over tax reform, the budget, the debt ceiling, infrastructure and—possibly—health care again. “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall,” as Lincoln put it.

Mr. Kelly’s challenge is to help Mr. Trump win support the old-fashioned way: by making a substantive case that the president’s policies are good for America. This requires strengthening the White House policy-making apparatus. Top advisers must not only frame good decisions for the president, but should also arm him and his supporters with arguments, talking points, rebuttals, fact sheets, story lines and examples of people who will be helped by his policies.

Putting an emphasis on substance will also require focusing the president’s voice. Discipline is not one of Mr. Trump’s strengths. Mr. Kelly must make it one. The president won’t persuade Congress and American voters to back his agenda unless he makes his case consistently, without skittering from issue to controversy and back again. There should be more set-piece speeches spelling out policies in a sustained fashion and fewer tweets attacking fellow Republicans or cabinet members.

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The chief of staff should name a key lieutenant to replace Mr. Scaramucci. This new communications director would work closely with colleagues across the administration, allies on Capitol Hill, and outside groups to organize support for Mr. Trump’s initiatives. The strategy must employ every available means to transmit the White House’s message—from tweets, to cable, print and digital media, to town halls and Oval Office addresses. So far the administration’s communications strategy has been nonexistent.

Mr. Kelly is a decorated combat commander, but he is also a veteran of Washington’s political wars. He completed tours as the Marine liaison officer to the House, assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, legislative assistant to the Marine Commandant and senior military assistant to two defense secretaries, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. This experience should serve him and the president well in the tough battles ahead.

The first six months of the Trump presidency have been marked by chaos, and the administration cannot survive another six months of the same. Mr. Kelly has the skills to help the president turn things around. The question is whether Mr. Trump will empower him to do so.

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