You could almost hear the intake of breath from Republicans and all sorts of establishmentarians this week. The reason: their hope that Donald Trump can transition from rabble rousing billionaire to purposeful president with the installation of retired Marine Gen. John Kelly as his chief of staff.
Such a shift has long been known as The Pivot — expected and predicted over and over again since Trump announced his candidacy two years ago.
First time: When he announced his candidacy talking about a wall with Mexico to keep out immigrants (“rapists … drugs … crime”). Second time: When he said those things about Sen. John McCain and TV news personality Megyn Kelly.
The critics surmised: He had to stop talking like that.
Then there were the stumbles and factual misstatements in the GOP debates, the graceless winner moments after primaries and sore loser moments after caucuses. Then the inexplicable attack on the Gold Star family at the Democratic convention and the judge on the Trump University case, to name a few. And through it all, the constant churn in campaign personnel.
Time and again, it appeared Trump might settle down and act more like a traditional prospective Oval Office occupant. Time and again, he didn’t.
There were two weeks just before Election Day when Trump cut back on Twitter and stayed on script at public rallies — possibly aiding his Electoral College shocker. There was the respectful post-election sit-down with President Barack Obama, and some respectable choices for the Cabinet.
But it didn’t last. January brought President Trump, and with him the forceful “America First” inaugural address, the bizarre controversy over the crowd size, the first travel ban and the firing of key officials in the Justice Department including FBI Director James Comey.
On Capitol Hill, it has been maximum disruption, minimal legislation. The most consequential bill sent to the president so far has been a stiffening of sanctions on Russia (plus Iran and North Korea). It notably restricts the president’s power to lift such sanctions, and White House efforts to blunt the bill were rebuffed. The administration says the president will sign, though statements have been vague about timing.
Things didn’t hit bottom until July, when the Senate could not get 50 votes for any of its options to repeal and/or replace Obamacare. Trump angrily demanded the Senate return to the issue one more time, and was ignored.
All that happened even as the president installed a new communications director (who would have to be fired the following week) and then fired his chief of staff. The latter casualty, Reince Priebus, had been Trump’s fourth quarterback in 13 months (counting his last three campaign managers).
So with all else seeming to have failed, the president opted at last for a true reboot. A new path. An actual pivot.
The pivot arrives in the person of John F. Kelly, the retired Marine general whom Trump originally tapped as Secretary of Homeland Security. Kelly has by all accounts performed ably in that job, earning respect from frontline departmental troops and immigration professionals.
As a 40-year veteran of the Marines, Kelly knows all about orders and allegiance and the chain of command. But he also mustered out wearing four stars, which means he knows what it means to command.
On the day he was sworn in as chief of staff, Kelly ended the brief but bruising 10-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci.
Just as important, Kelly brought some of his border control expertise from Homeland Security and set some boundaries for Trump’s cluster of advisers. Henceforth, it was announced, all White House personnel would report to Kelly and go through him to see the president.
Restricting walk-in privileges to the Oval Office was a crucial step, and it applied to Jared Kushner, the multipurpose minister married to first daughter Ivanka Trump, who is also a presidential adviser. It also applies to Steven Bannon, the senior adviser often cast as Trump’s conduit to the alt-right.
If Kelly can truly organize the president’s communications and his daily counsel, a semblance of system may arise within the White House. That could make the president’s insistent tweet (“No WH chaos!”) more than a fond hope.
All Trump has to do is let Kelly take over, end the White House wars, focus on a unified agenda, repair relations with Congress and send a global signal to friends and adversaries alike. Easy!
Yet harmonizing the president’s swarm of surrogates as a choir is only Job One. Kelly’s ultimate challenge will be imposing some four-star discipline and self-control on his boss.
Can that be done? Can Trump be different? There is scant precedent or reason to expect he will.
At a recent rally, Trump argued he could be presidential — if he were trying: “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”
That sounds a lot like The Pivot people have been talking about the past two years. And now we have it personified in John Kelly. A move toward order and focus, as even the White House acknowledges.
He seems fit for the job and up to the task.
So this time, this time, we know it’s for real. Right?