Around this time last year, pundits and journalists were hoping that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump would finally "pivot" from his extreme views to more moderate positions. As we've all discovered, that didn't happen. But even since he took office, every time Trump has read a statement from a TelepromtTer and every time he's performed in a situation in which he appeared to be even remotely grown-up, he's received praise — only to fall back to his own habits.
When Trump fired Reince Priebus as his chief of staff and installed former Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly in his place, the narrative emerged that Kelly would be a "moderating influence" on the president. In the time that Kelly has been chief of staff — less than a month — Trump has kept on being Donald Trump.
He lied about getting phone calls from the head of the Boy Scouts and the president of Mexico. He provoked North Korea multiple times and defended people rallying in support of a Confederate statue alongside neo-Nazis. As those events happened, John Kelly has stood by, unable to stop the president from going off the rails.
So it may be time to re-think the idea that Kelly can get anything done positively. A Politico article Thursday reports on Kelly's efforts to "ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports, and even news articles that haven’t been vetted."
It’s a quiet effort to make Trump conform to White House decision-making norms he’s flouted without making him feel shackled or out of the loop. In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide — White House staff secretary Rob Porter, a little-known but highly regarded Rhodes Scholar who overlapped with Jared Kushner as an undergraduate at Harvard — will review all documents that cross the Resolute Desk.
But there's a problem. Unless John Kelly can physically put his hands over Donald Trump's mouth, he can't stop the president from threatening to "close down our government" to build his border wall with Mexico, or attacking Republican senators, or saying people who want to tear down Confederate monuments are "trying to take away our culture" and "trying to take away our history."
It's also clear that Trump isn't getting his information from "documents that cross the Resolute Desk." He's getting his information from Twitter and from TV during the hours Kelly is probably not in the office. And if he is there, he's not taking Trump's phone away from him or preventing him from watching TV — his preferred sources of information. So even though Kelly can prevent stories from Infowars and "internet provocateur Charles Johnson," in the words of Axios, he can't prevent Trump's "Fox and Friends" infusion.
The early morning hours are Donald Trump's personal time to log onto Twitter, turn on the TV and go to town. On Thursday alone, he slammed a former director of national intelligence and threatened a government shutdown.
The president doesn't need a chief of staff. He needs a babysitter.