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Oped: John Kelly, a study in chaos management

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly attends a meeting with state and local officials about infrastructure in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

White House chief of staff John Kelly has committed to sticking with the job through 2020 — although of course both he and President Donald Trump may change their minds long before then. Still, with that commitment at the end of his first year on the job, it's a good time to see how he's doing — what's gone right, and what he needs to do better.

Kelly's main achievements remain that he cleaned out a lot of people who should have never been on a presidential staff in the first place, and he's also professionalized the basic operations of the West Wing — at least compared with the utter chaos that prevailed in Trump's early months.

Still, he's fallen short on most of the criteria I set out when he took over. Trump's professional reputation is if anything even worse than it was last summer, and there are few signs that he's moving in the right direction. There's still little sign of policy planning. And Kelly's failure to hire solid staffers to replace the various people he rightly got rid of has meant that eventually Trump has hired a new group who shouldn't be there.

Moreover, as Politico's Eliana Johnson reports, Kelly's early successes in professionalization have tended to deteriorate over time. The reason is pretty clear. Kelly originally said he would try to manage the staff, not the president. And that's just not good enough. For a president to leave his schedule open every day so that he can schedule meetings based on whatever he happens to see on cable TV news that morning — perhaps the most devastating piece of Johnson's reporting — just means that the chaos is back, even if some of the most visible manifestations of it are gone.

I suspect the conventional wisdom is correct: Kelly has given up on making a functioning White House happen, but he is sticking around because he feels that he is crucial to the vital task of preventing Trump from doing anything truly crazy. Perhaps we'll eventually learn that he has done exactly that. But after NATO, the U.K. and Helsinki, it's increasingly difficult to imagine that Kelly is preventing danger — and, in fact, it's perhaps just as likely that he's enabling it by failing to stand up to the president over the inappropriate things he has done.

Meanwhile, what we did learn from Kelly's early months in the job is that things can get better. Not good, mind you, but better than they had been. Trump was, at least for a while, willing to abide by some of the norms other presidents established. So by remaining on the job, Kelly might be preventing Trump from hiring a disaster, but he's also preventing Trump from replacing him with someone who hasn't been worn down by the job — and perhaps someone who has more political experience and better political skills.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University.