Monday, January 7, 2019

Adult deficit disorder: Mattis and Kelly
exit the building. Who’s next?


This is Crazytown. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.
          —  John Kelly, as quoted in Fear by Bob Woodward



A NEW YEAR, like a new broom, sweeps clean. Two former principals of House Trump’s axis of grownups know this all too well. For James Mattis, once Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, once the White House chief of staff, the arrival of 2019 was a welcome departure from the slough of despond otherwise known as 2018.

But it’d be a mistake to think the consequences of their departures ended with those departures. The bigger existential questions for the Trump administration have only shifted from one year into the next. Even though their exits are chronologically the property of last year, the farewells of Kelly and Mattis — putatively the adults on the White House playground — presage things to come at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

With major decision makers in an “acting” status (the attorney general, the secretary of defense, the chief of staff, the EPA administrator, and probably others we’ve briefly overlooked), the only reliable administration permanence rests with the man in the Oval Office. Which is unfortunate.

And as bad as the exodus from Trump has been ... we haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

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The country was blindsided Dec. 20, when Trump accepted the resignation of Mattis, with a resignation letter that was a clinic in elegant, eloquent rebuke. With the scholar’s touch he was known for, Mattis schooled the presidential asterisk on geopolitics, military posture, and the United States’ place in the world.

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. ...

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”

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MATTIS CONTINUES: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. ...”

It was masterful; in official Washington, it was a mike-drop with the impact of a howitzer barrage. In a “clear-eyed” expression of his understanding of the boundaries separating his world-view from Trump’s, Mattis made clear his principal objections: Mister President, you’re all too willing to make friends of our enemies and enemies of our friends. I’m not down with that anymore. And I never was.

Mattis, class act that he is, offered to stay on until Feb. 28, to help with the transition, ease the handoff to the next one in the turret, and take one last global victory lap, in a well-deserved long goodbye to friends abroad. The Don wasn’t having it. He ordered Mattis to clear out by the end of the year.

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Mattis, of course, was preceded in excommunication by John Kelly, the Marine general turned homeland security chieftain turned into the air traffic controller more commonly called “White House chief of staff.”

Kelly knew what was coming. If he didn’t, Peter Kuper, a well-known and spot-on cartoonist for The New Yorker, sure as hell did. In July 2017, during the runup to Kelly assuming the White House gig, The New Yorker ran a pitch-perfect cartoon by Kuper, a fixture in the magazine for years. In the cartoon, a man in uniform, rifle at the ready, crouches behind his desk amid sandbags and concertina wire at his lonely outpost somewhere in the West Wing. The omniscient caption reads:

John Kelly takes his position as the new White House chief of staff.

The New Yorker has an enviable history of nailing down the national sense of things in the inescapable visual vernacular, of which we’re all captives. But Kuper’s cartoon was more. This is no case of art imitating or distilling life; this was art predicting the life to come, in the metaphor of combat that the Trump White House embodies, and embraces, and richly deserves.

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Kelly would certainly say that now himself. On Friday, Dec. 14, President* Trump announced that Kelly would be leaving the chief of staff post at the end of the year. Trump thanked Kelly for services rendered; there was the ritual veneer of politesse. But the former Marine general’s departure from the free-fire zone in the West Wing comes amid backbiting and skullduggery within the White House, actions that Kelly finally decided he wanted no more of.

From the start of his misadventure, and up to right now this minute, inquiring minds have been asking: Why? What unusually dogged-blind sense of duty would compel a decorated former Marine general to sign on to the train wreck of the Trump administration?

Maybe it was no more than that: Duty to the country, and to what he may have believed then was a fractured, breathtakingly dysfunctional White House that could use a Marine general’s approach to order and discipline. In that, Kelly could be forgiven; he saw a problem he thought he could fix.

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VOX REPORTED on Dec. 8: “Kelly saw his first order of business as installing a more rigorous process and structure to the infamously chaotic White House. He saw no use for bombastic, Machiavellian advisers like Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, both of whom he pushed out within weeks. Others who stayed in the White House saw their access to the president restricted or their responsibilities reduced.”

“While Kelly did get credit for stabilizing the White House’s internal functioning, one thing he didn’t do — and really, didn’t even try to do — was change the president.

“In fact, it soon became clear that those hoping Kelly would be a mainstream, establishment figure who’d help moderate the administration were sorely mistaken. In his hardline views on immigration, his traditionalist instincts on cultural issues, and his willingness to compromise the Justice Department’s independence, Kelly turned out to bear a great deal of resemblance to Trump himself.”

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It also became clear to Kelly, at some point not far into his relationship with the prevaricators, mountebanks, mushwits and fools of the Trump White House, that the order he believed he was there to achieve was the exact opposite of what his boss, the president*, really wanted.

That fact has permeated every aspect of the Trump administration.

The biggest obstacle to the work of a Trump chief of staff is that the job’s current reality is at odds with its very reason for being. Kelly was there to establish order and discipline, something he got used to and knew well after years in the Marines. Kelly went to work in a White House with no use for order or discipline.

Trump doesn’t embrace order or discipline as operational means to an end; he values chaos and disorder, and the ability to keep people off-stride. Kelly, a master of order in his past professional life, faced down a boss who is inimical to that which Kelly knows and believes in. With such a basic division between them, parting ways was inevitable from the day Kelly moved into his bunker — uh, office — in the West Wing.

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KELLY’S replacement in the Don Patrol is Mick Mulvaney, a man who’s long established himself as the Trump White House Swiss Army knife. A former member of Congress (in the House representing South Carolina), Mulvaney was Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, until last year. He's keeping his other old job, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. On Jan. 2, he started the new chief of staff gig as a darling of the president*, one who's been also willing to put in trigger time as Trump admin spokesman on the Sabbath gasbag programs.

He’s hit the ground moving fast. But Mulvaney, no fool he, accepted the position on the basis of his being an “acting” chief of staff — in an administrative context a bit like being the acting air traffic controller at LAX or Heathrow two days before Christmas. In this way, Mulvaney pulled a fast one that could be repeated by others now considered for the numerous posts still unfilled in the White House, and the administration in general.

Mulvaney shrewdly set the terms of his own departure from the administration, a strategic move that, among other things, screams a lack of full confidence. Face it: You don’t pack a chute and sit next to the fuselage door if you think you won’t have to jump out of a perfectly good administration.

If it is a perfectly good administration.

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Word is out about the pitfalls and sorrows of working in the Trump White House, and that it’s a toxic, terrible place to work. Mulvaney got himself the closest thing to an insurance policy you can get working for Trump. Kelly and Mattis stepped out on faith, which lasted until The Don stepped on them.

Kelly and Mattis may be two figures in the national rear-view mirror, but their frustration with and absences from a deeply, willfully dysfunctional White House is a matter of looking through the windshield — a look at what’s yet to come for the White House, and what’s ahead for America. The incomplete roster of functionaries needed to run the government will likely stay incomplete, as long as President* Trump keeps ... well, acting up.

And just think. We haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

Image credits: Mattis: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Mattis and Trump: Via The Economic Times. John Kelly cartoon by Peter Kuper: © 2018 The New Yorker. Kelly: Joshua Roberts/Reuters.  Vox logo: © 2019 Vox Media. Mulvaney: ABC News. Trump: Benoit Tessier/Reuters.

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