Jules Witcover: Another general called to Trump’s rescue
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, a bully who admires strong-willed military men, got fed up with his ineffective White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus. So he chose former four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly — already a member of the Cabinet as secretary of homeland security — to replace him.
A few days later, on Monday, Trump fired the newly nominated White House chief of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, apparently at Kelly’s insistence, for inappropriate profane remarks about Priebus. His behavior revealed Scaramucci to be a loose cannon in the Trump mold, which was more than Kelly could abide.
Kelly was an obvious choice for the housecleaning task. The White House staff was in disarray under Priebus, who had run Trump’s presidential campaign but whose only real Washington experience was as chairman of the Republican National Committee. It is a non-governmental post Priebus had filled after years as state party chairman in Wisconsin.
Kelly, on the other hand, was a former head of the U.S. Southern Command overseeing the American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, after serving as commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq in 2008. He also had liaison experience on Capitol Hill. In 1996, he was the National War College commandant’s liaison to the House of Representatives, and in 2011-12 was military assistant to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Kelly should be well up to coping with a White House staff that has been riven by internal friction, divisive leaking and a communications team whose task has been complicated by an undisciplined and unpredictable president. His official spokespersons even now never know what he will say or do next.
The appointment of Scaramucci, another Trump cheerleader, as communications chief was a glaring example of putting a square peg in a round hole. With his stormy and officious manner, he was another disaster waiting to happen. His colossal communications blunder of calling a New Yorker writer and pressing him to reveal the source of a damning story about him was a professional no-no in his new job, an immediate red flag.
More challenging for Kelly is dealing with the president himself. His impetuous temperament, his penchant for shooting from the hip and disregard for unpleasant facts makes him his own worst enemy, though there are plenty of competitors for that distinction.
Even loyal and adoring Republican apologists seem to agree that Trump would be better off if he were to desist from tweeting. Maybe Kelly, who is a member in great standing of the one club Trump has never joined but endlessly praises, the American military, will at last persuade him to curb his Twitter habit somewhat. Doing so would be a most notable signal that Kelly has the stuff to rein in the wrecking ball of a president who in six months has sowed unprecedented chaos in the people’s house on Pennsylvania Avenue.
To Trump’s early assaults on freedom of expression, religion, travel and sexual orientation he has now added gender identity. His latest unilateral edict banning transgender Americans for military service, including those already on combat duty abroad, cries out for the view of new White House chief of staff Gen. John F. Kelly.
Apparently with no advance notification to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, Trump dropped this cultural nuclear device on them and on the men and women already in uniform around the world, in the manner of a sneak attack.
Will Gen. Kelly voice any contrary or even challenging view on this unilateral decision out of the blue from his supreme leader? Or will he simply salute like the loyal Marine he has always been, and instruct the White House staff now under him to implement it? There could be no more timely litmus test of Kelly’s defense of core American values as he embarks on arguably his most and defining assignment of that long public career.