First things first. NO!!!!! This is not a Trump "pivot." No, no, no. I wrote here last July -- over a year ago -- that Donald Trump is not "pivoting." This is who he is. This is who he has always been. He's 71 years old. He's not changing. He has been this way his entire life, from everything we've read and seen. And being this way has succeeded for him, getting him elected improbably to be President of the United States. And since then...no, he hasn't pivoted. He hasn't "become presidential." He just keeps being Trump. And people still ask if this might be Trump's pivot??? No, it's not. NO. Trump will not pivot. This is who he is!
Okay, sorry, but I have a digression for the moment. Bear with me.
I actually got into a brief Twitter exchange on Monday with MSNBC's Ali Velshi on this matter of a Trump "pivot." In a tweet to him, I had wished he would stop asking the "pivot" question, though noted happily his guest answered that we should learn from history that Trump is not pivoting. I give Mr. Velshi big credit for surprisingly replying to me, and so thoughtfully. But it was a thin answer, saying, "Not sure when it became cool to stop asking questions. I ask on behalf of my viewers." As I wrote back -- I wasn't complaining about asking questions, but to stop asking this one question that has gotten relentlessly asked and repeatedly answered....and that's why this one question is SO problematic, because it makes us think that Trump may act responsibly now, when instead we should be vigilant for his next venality, not distracted. Besides, I prefer when reporters ask what is important to them as a reporter about what is news, rather than mainly relying on "what the viewers want" (including me), since what viewers want -- while sometimes crucial -- can too often be "Does Beyoncé have a baby bump?"
To Velshi's fuller credit, he answered even that with a two-part tweet. It read in part, "So maybe I should have been more focused in the question. I don’t think a pivot in WH management makes for a pivot in the admin". I responded that, yes, that focus is far more to the point. And a totally different matter of whether Trump himself will be "pivoting" to become Presidential. Though I added that using the word "pivot" is ill-chosen since at this point it is so strongly identified to Trump himself, not with mere office management style.
(Yes, I'm very surprised by all the replies I got from Ali Velshi. Perhaps it was helped by my notes being polite. But mostly, I appreciated that he eventually acknowledged my point because by then I had received a lot of slams from Ali Velshi Fans chiding me for daring to have a criticism against their hero. And after seeing his thoughtful replies, I did at least get a few mea culpas from some people. My favorite was -- "I went back and reread. I was wrong. OK with you if I follow you? I think you might not be such a bad guy after all!")
All of which returns us to the question at hand. The change in staffing at the top of the White House food chain, and what it signals for the Trump administration. Does it mean a turn in office management from total chaos?
Which in turn brings us to John Kelly. The serious man who is now in charge of the Trump White House.
Well -- while John Kelly is most certainly a serious Marine, and a serious general, I am not as convinced that he is a serious White House Chief of Staff, most especially to Trump.
For starters, I think he's a xenophobe, who is profoundly hard-right on immigration and on Muslims most of all, and in fact thought that Trump didn't go far enough (!) on his Musllim travel ban. Given that Trump lost every lower court hearing on that, and only got a temporary, partial-leave in the Supreme Court, it seems that the law and Constitution agree with me on this one. And not the serious John Kelly. Moreover, as Director of Homeland Security, he revoked President Obama's order that protected illegal-immigrant parents of U.S. citizens.
In addition, the serious John Kelly is the man who was sitting next to Trump at a Coast Guard ceremony a few months back, when Trump was presented with a big, shiny sword as a gift. And as he returned to his seat, Kelly smarmily quipped to his boss about how maybe Trump could use the sword on the media. Ha, ha, what a great, dangerous suck-up joke to reinforce Trump's hatred of a free press. And for all we know, John Kelly's, as well.
Moreover, Kelly is a military man. That's his level of expertise, and it's a high level. But he has zero political experience, and before anything else the presidency is a political job. He has no background dealing with tax reform and health care. He's new to this world. He doesn't have contacts in the House and Senate he can draw upon to push the administration agenda. And he doesn't have a politician's sense of diplomacy on what that agenda should be. See "the Muslim travel ban should be harsher" above.
In addition, he's a general. Another general, We now have General Mattis, General McAlister and General Kelly in leading positions of the Trump administration. Honestly, I'm not thrilled about that. I think an administration should be as civilian as possible. To me, a serious Chief of State would be just that, civilian. Yes, there are exceptions for military men in an administration. But they should be exceptions, not the growing rule of thumb. Especially with this dangerous president.
Someone asked me if I thought Trump respected generals and the military and therefore would listen to their thoughtful leadership. To start with, I'm not crazy about a president listening to the thoughtful leadership of generals for civilian rule. And secondly, no, I don't think Trump respects generals or even the military. After all, remember what he said about the military and generals during the primary, trashing both. And I don't think Trump actually respects anyone outside of himself and maybe his family. I think to Trump, everyone else is a prop. And when generals agree with him, then they are shiny, brassy props that give a veneer of authority to him.
But mainly, I don't think John Kelly is a serious choice as Chief of Staff who will change things because I'm not sure if anyone would be. This mess in the White House isn't about who the Chief of Staff is, or any of the staff. It's about Trump, period. Could John Kelly make a difference in the structural management of the office? Sure, he could, and maybe will is small ways and briefly, and it won't really matter much. Is Jared Kushner going to have to go through Kelly to get to Trump? Will Ivanka? What about Steve Bannon? Or who else? I think not, but even if so, it will make Trump fill isolated and out of control, and even crazier, less-protected than usual. I think it will still largely be an incredibly dysfunctional White House, because Trump is incredibly dysfunctional. And in the end, this is all about Trump, not the top office manager. Maybe there will be some better office management, maybe some people have to make an appointment to see Trump, maybe staffers will now have to fill a requisition form to get more pencils. But in the end, Trump is still the president. And everything bad that that entails is still in full operation.
Trump is still president. That's what matters. Not who the Chief of Staff is. You can have a better first mate on the Exxon Valdez, but if the captain is drunk, you're still crashing. You can reorganize the chairs better on the Titanic, but they're still going down after crashing into the iceberg.
Trump is Trump. This is who he is. This is who he's always been. And this is how he got here. He's not changing. He's not pivoting. He's not ceding authority to an underling. And the Chief of Staff is an underling. To Trump, he's probably the valet.
But mainly, beyond all that, there's one other thing. And it's far more important that everything else.
None of what I've written here matters. Because the one thing that is overriding the entire Trump administration is not who the Chief of Staff is, not how dysfunctional the staff is, not who'll get fired next, not what will be leaked next, not what their domestic or foreign proposals will be, but this -- what will Robert Mueller and the FBI find in their investigations? What will the Senate intelligence committees find in their investigation? What will the House intelligence committee find during their own investigation? All of those investigations are ongoing, and none are impacted by who the Chief of Staff is. What they're investigating is what' has been done in the past. And John Kelly has zero say in that. And Trump knows the investigation is still going on -- and knows what he's done. And worse, John Kelly doesn't know. And Trump probably won't tell him.
Is this a good, serious appointment?
It's different. And as the line goes at the end of Groundhog Day -- "Anything different is good." But that probably just means the administration won't turn into the Donner Party and eat their neighbor. But they're still stranded in a blizzard with no clear way out and no one coming to save them.
And what little benefits John Kelly can instill in the White House, it doesn't address all the other problems above that he himself brings to it. And in the end, Trump remains in charge.