A general's rigor could face hurdles under a chaos-prone boss
Posted July 29
Just a 10-second walk from the Oval Office, the White House chief of staff's quarters are considered prime real estate.
But the corner office's real value lies in its proximity to the commander-in-chief, perhaps the most prized currency in Washington.
At least it used to be.
For President Donald Trump, the rigid contours of White House management structures - so engrained they're reflected in the building's blueprints - have never meant much. An office next to Trump may project access, but as the litany of aides and friends with a direct line to the President have demonstrated, it's not really the office that matters anymore.
As he assumes his new role, many are expecting incoming chief of staff John Kelly to find his Marine's sense of hierarchy and order tested by his freewheeling, capricious boss.
"That's going to be the first challenge that faces General Kelly, going into the White House: whether he is going to be the chief of staff or whether he is going to be one of several power centers within the White House, which is I think a prescription for the kind of chaos that we've seen over these last six months," said Leon Panetta, who served as a White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. Panetta also worked with Kelly while defense secretary under President Barack Obama.
While Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, is entering the White House with a mandate to instill greater order among Trump's staff, the overriding question even among some sources close to the White House is whether Trump will actually empower his new chief to exert control - something they said will require Trump to change some of his own current practices.
"It's Trump's White House, not Kelly's," one person close to the White House observed, noting that Trump has so many aides and family members with a direct line that it presents a nearly impossible task for the person responsible for wrangling the flow of information.
"Trump sets the tone and Trump sets the structure," said another.
The sources spoke anonymously to avoid damaging their relationships with the administration.
The West Wing that Kelly is now entering is top-heavy, with at least 26 assistants to the president, the highest ranking title, as of last month. Many of them report directly to Trump, including senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, chief strategist Steve Bannon, and communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Others at the White House have less formal but nonetheless direct avenues to the President, including senior communications adviser Hope Hicks, social media director Dan Scavino, and counselor Kellyanne Conway.
The overcrowding at the top of Trump's White House reflects a break in precedent. By comparison, President Barack Obama had 22 assistants to the president in his first year in office among a White House staff that was larger than Trump's by almost a third. President George W. Bush maintained an overall staff of a similar size, with only between 13 and 17 assistants to the president.
Those advisers all typically fall underneath the President's top aide.
"In almost all modern White Houses, every staff member reports through and to the White House chief of staff," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who studies the chief of staff position.
That model hasn't been in use under Trump, who speaks with aides and informal advisers throughout the day and evening without the presence or sometimes even knowledge of his chief of staff.
Outside the White House, Trump has maintained a wide network of confidants and friends, both from his long career as a celebrity businessman and from last year's presidential campaign. Their counsel is often at odds with what Trump's White House aides are proffering.
"These types of organizations, in the modern White House, don't work well, and usually fail pretty spectacularly," Cohen said.
Some sources close to Trump remained optimistic that Kelly could succeed in bringing an often discordant White House staff into line, despite the demonstrated failings of his predecessor Reince Priebus. A person close to Kelly said that the incoming White House chief of staff plans to bring an element of order to the place.
"He is an accomplished, competent leader. He leads," the person said. "That's what he will do at the White House: bring order to the building and help the President lead."
Another person close to Trump said Kelly is someone the President is more likely to trust with the day-to-day White House operations - including staff management - than Priebus.
"He's a commander and a leader of men," one Trump ally said. "He's just a buttoned-up guy."
But as of Friday evening, White House aides remained unsure, at least publicly, about how specifically Kelly might reorganize the West Wing to better advance a governing agenda that has seen setback after setback.
"The President and his new chief of staff will decide what the right organizational structure and protocols are," Conway said on Fox News. "I think people will respect that pecking order and protocols."
"I'll be very curious to see what General Kelly, our new chief of staff, says on Monday about that very thing when we walk into a senior staff meeting," she went on to say.
Trump has long admired military brass, naming generals to high-ranking administration posts like national security adviser and defense secretary, a position normally reserved for a civilian.
But the arrangements have not always worked seamlessly. Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, was forced from his post less than a month into the administration, a result of misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russians.
Flynn's replacement H.R. McMaster, also an Army lieutenant general, has recently found himself in conflict with other senior White House officials, as well as Cabinet members and the President himself, over such things as the military strategy in Afghanistan.
Veterans of past White Houses say it's only the President himself who can foster favorable conditions for a chief of staff to succeed.
"The chief of staff is only as strong as the authority that the President bestows upon them. If the President undermines the chief of staff, ridicules him publicly, allows staff to go around him - Reince had no chance to succeed," said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a White House communications director under Obama. "If I was General Kelly, I would be incredibly concerned."