New York Times: Sage Advice From the ‘Gold Standard’ of White House Chiefs of Staff

July 30, 2017
In The News

When a new White House chief of staff takes over, the smart ones check in with James A. Baker III, the only man to have occupied the office two different times for two different presidents and who is widely considered to be the gold standard.

Mr. Baker has plenty of advice from running the White House during Ronald Reagan’s first term and again at the end of George Bush’s presidency, but it usually boils down to this: “You can focus on the ‘chief,’ or you can focus on the ‘of staff.’ Those who have focused on the ‘of staff’ have done pretty well.”

On Monday, as John F. Kelly takes over Mr. Baker’s old corner office with the fireplace and patio, he assumes probably the hardest job in Washington other than president. Any chief of staff must find the tricky balance between serving the president and managing the building, between being an adviser and being a boss — tasks all the more challenging in President Trump’s faction-filled White House.

Mr. Baker’s advice is aimed at those who become too full of themselves, acting as a quasi prime minister, as his successor Donald T. Regan did before making the fateful mistake of hanging up the phone on Nancy Reagan. Reince Priebus, tossed aside by Mr. Trump on Friday after six months, faster than any chief has been pushed out before, may have gone too far the other direction. He never fully gained control over the West Wing, presumably because he was never empowered to do so.

Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Kelly because he seemed to be the anti-Priebus: a retired four-star Marine general who has commanded the Department of Homeland Security with a tough hand since early this year. Mr. Trump is enamored of “my generals,” as he calls them, and Mr. Kelly will be the first current or former general to serve as White House chief of staff since Alexander M. Haig under President Richard M. Nixon.

“Reince was terribly effective, but was probably a little bit more laid back and independent in the way he ran the office,” Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I think the president wants to go a different direction, wants a little bit more discipline, a little more structure in there.”

Mr. Kelly faces two challenges in imposing discipline. He must instill order on a staff whose infighting has grown so toxic that Sean Spicer, the press secretary, resigned rather than work with the new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, who then delivered an expletive-laden rant berating Mr. Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist.

“What I would guess moving forward is that General Kelly is going to bring the type of discipline to the staff to ensure that the leaks are stopped and that the president’s agenda is foremost of what takes place in that building, so there will be no more backbiting, there’ll be no more stabbing each other in the back,” Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But the second task is far more daunting: imposing discipline on a president who evidently wants no part of it. At 71, Mr. Trump seems unlikely to discard a lifetime of operating habits and learn to stick to a plan and temper his self-destructive instincts. From his viewpoint, his freewheeling style got him to the White House and is not the problem.

Mr. Kelly, 67, is more a generational peer and may take advantage of the president’s reverence for generals to get him to listen as he did not to Mr. Priebus, 45 and neither wealthy nor a military officer.

Still, many doubt it. “It won’t matter,” Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, said on CNN. “Whether it’s General Kelly or Reince Priebus, Scaramucci or Spicer, the reason the White House is failing is not because of staff. It’s because of the president himself. This is like rearranging deck chairs on a Titanic.”

Many foreign policy specialists had hoped that Mr. Kelly, as homeland security secretary, and what is called the “M.M.T. triumvirate” — Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — would keep Mr. Trump from making rash decisions on national security.

Some think they have moderated his more provocative instincts, keeping him from ripping up the Iran nuclear deal, lifting sanctions on Russia, declaring China a currency manipulator, bombing North Korea or moving the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But Mr. Trump resents their efforts and sidestepped Mr. Mattis in announcing a ban on transgender people from the military. Many wonder if General McMaster or Mr. Tillerson will leave soon.

“There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president,” Mr. Scaramucci said last week. “O.K., that is not their job. Their job is to inject this president into America.”

Moreover, Mr. Kelly’s experience is in national security. “That’s a very different matter than someone who has to navigate all the crosscurrents of dealing with domestic politics, dealing with Capitol Hill and dealing with a president who just can’t throw his phone away and stop tweeting,” John D. Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s last chief of staff, said Sunday on “This Week” on ABC.

Finding the right chief of staff has challenged many presidents. Some picked friends. Mr. Clinton, for example, initially tapped Thomas F. McLarty III, a friend since kindergarten and considered one of the nicest people ever to work in a White House, although perhaps too nice.

Some picked seasoned professionals, as when President George W. Bush chose Andrew H. Card Jr., who was widely respected, almost revered, by the staff, although he found it challenging to manage Vice President Dick Cheney, himself a former chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford. Both Mr. Ford and President Jimmy Carter at first did not think they needed a chief of staff, until learning otherwise.

President Barack Obama went through four chiefs — five if you count Pete Rouse, who served in an interim capacity. He never really clicked with William M. Daley, but got along well with Denis R. McDonough, probably the closest to the president, though too young to be a peer.

Mr. Reagan’s selection of Mr. Baker may have been most surprising. No loyalist coming in, Mr. Baker had managed the campaigns of not one but two Republicans who had run against Mr. Reagan — Mr. Ford in 1976 and Mr. Bush in 1980. But Mr. Reagan believed he needed someone like Mr. Baker, a dealmaking pragmatist who could work both sides of the aisle, manage difficult personalities and assert his dominance among the staff while channeling the president.

There were still setbacks and infighting, but in the end, Mr. Reagan got much of what he wanted and was re-elected in a landslide.