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Stop Pretending That Trump Can Be Saved From Himself

The political press is hailing Chief of Staff John Kelly's "discipline" in the White House. But you can't impose order on a chaotic president.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Late last month, the interests of President Donald Trump aligned neatly with the interests of the Washington press corps. A chaotic White House was in search of order, and restless journalists were in search of a new political narrative. Enter John F. Kelly, a retired general and former secretary of Homeland Security, whom Trump tapped as his new chief of staff. Almost immediately, media reports celebrated Kelly as the man who could finally “bring order to a chaotic and unruly White House,” as Bloomberg put it. It’s a story best told in two New York Times headlines, less than a week apart: “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as Beacon of Discipline” and “John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House.”

Referred to simply as “General,” Kelly reportedly brought military rigor to Trump’s team in a matter of days. One of his first moves was to fire Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s boastful, indiscreet, and foul-mouthed communications director. Kelly has also imposed a strict chain of command so that everyone in the White House, aside from the president, has to answer to him. “After one week, other signs of Mr. Kelly’s taking the reins include the end of the unchecked flow of paperwork that crosses the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, and a new, more formal process for meeting with the president,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. “The new rules extend to Mr. Trump’s family. Son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, who serve as official advisers in the White House and have their own staffs, now report to Mr. Kelly instead of directly to the president, as does chief strategist Steve Bannon.”

Prominent Trump ally Newt Gingrich claimed a “sense of relief” came over the White House last week, a feeling shared even by many of Trump’s political opponents, who fear that an anarchic administration could hurt the country. But the hope bestowed upon Kelly is misplaced. While Kelly might run a tighter ship than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, he still faces the same insolvable problem: how to impose order when the chief agent of chaos is the president himself.

The tumult in the White House isn’t a product of Trump’s inexperience with politics; it’s long been his preferred way of running things. As a real estate boss, Trump cultivated teams of rivals to compete for his approval, not unlike his reality TV show The Apprentice. This approach also defined Trump’s entire campaign for president, and now his presidency. Such factionalism hasn’t stopped under Kelly—and perhaps even has intensified, as Bannon’s allies wage a whisper campaign against national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who is derided by the Breitbart crowd as a “globalist.”

International relations scholar David Rothkopf on Friday compared the strife in the Trump White House to the palace intrigues of a monarchy, a situation impossible to reconcile with the bureaucratic order Kelly aspires to. “The Trump White House differs from those of the past because sometimes, with daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as the president’s true primus inter pares advisers, it often more resembles a royal court than the pinnacle of a democracy,” Rothkopf argued in the Financial Times. “It is hard to impose a hierarchic military perspective on those who float above the system by virtue of birth. In addition, Mr Trump spends much of his time out of the White House in Trump resorts on the golf course where his behaviour is harder to control.”

Donald Trump might act like a spoiled teenager, but he is an independent adult. In practical terms, how can Kelly prevent Ivanka Trump and Kushner—or other family members and longtime Trump associates—from bending Trump’s ear over dinner or a game of golf? How can Kelly prevent Trump from watching Fox News or reading the Drudge Report, where the president will find stories planted by the Bannon wing and designed to push his buttons? The fact is, there is little Kelly or any other chaperone can do to limit Trump’s media access, whom he talks to, and what he tweets. “It wouldn’t work to try to isolate President Trump,” former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told the Journal. “He would rebel against that. General Kelly has to balance on the one hand an orderly process, and on the other hand an orderly process that doesn’t in any way isolate the president.” Giuliani is, of course, one of the many cronies that Trump chats with, and there’s little reason to believe Kelly can change that.

So far, Kelly hasn’t even been able to exert control over Trump’s tweeting. Bloomberg reported Sunday that “Trump has shown a willingness to consult with his chief of staff before hitting ‘send’ on certain missives that might cause an international uproar or lead to unwelcome distractions,” but the president “has made it clear ... that he reserves the right to ignore advice on tweets.” And Politico reported Friday that Kelly knows “he cannot stop the president from tweeting and ... has privately conceded there will be late-night or early-morning missives he cannot review.” That’s exactly what happened on Monday morning, when Trump was his usual self: watching cable news, and raging about it on Twitter.

“Donald Trump learned about political infighting on The Apprentice, where his management technique was to provoke fights between the different candidates and teams, and then decide who prevails by saying ‘You’re fired!’” Robert Bear, a former Middle East case officer for the CIA, recently told Politico. “I don’t see him changing that style in the White House. When was the last time you saw a 70-year-old man change for the better?”

Trump is now 71, in fact. Even the most agreeable septuagenarian men don’t change, let alone someone like Trump, whose character has long been defined by orneriness. He chafes at rules and likes to test limits, always looking to see what he can get away with. As Kelly tries to rein him in, Trump is certain to buck and resist all the more. The General can implement all the rules and structures he likes, but there will be no order in the White House of Chaos so long as Trump is the commander-in-chief.