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Will the Real President Please Stand Up?

The government shutdown shows just how powerful John Kelly has become—and how he's bringing chaos, not order, to the White House.


The government shutdown that began at midnight on Friday is the latest proof that President Donald Trump, for all his supposed mastery of the “art of the deal,” has no idea how to negotiate with lawmakers. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer complained in a press conference on Sunday, “Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with jello, it is next to impossible. It’s next to impossible to strike a deal with the president, because he can’t stick to the terms. I have found this out, Leader [Mitch] McConnell has found this out, Speaker [Paul] Ryan has found this out.”

Trump’s inability to stick to a firm position is only half the problem. The other half is his White House staff, who are much more committed to their positions—and see their boss’ fecklessness as an opportunity to advance their own agenda, often with uncertain presidential support and chaotic results.

As The New York Times reports, “twice over the past two weeks, Mr. Trump has privately told lawmakers he is eager to strike a deal to extend legal status to the so-called Dreamers, only to have his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, make clear afterward that such a compromise was not really in the offing—unless it also included a host of stiffer immigration restrictions. As the government shutdown continued for its second day on Sunday, one thing was clear to both sides of the negotiations to end it: The president was either unwilling or unable to articulate the immigration policy he wanted, much less understand the nuances of what it would involve.”

Miller in particular has been blamed—or credited—for the White House’s hardline stance on immigration in recent days. The Times described the 32-year-old as “the ideological architect behind much of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda and a tart-tongued and unapologetic true believer in the president’s ‘America First’ approach to the issue,” while The Washington Post reported that “Miller has come to be widely viewed ... as something of a puppeteer, helping to shape and scuttle deals for a president who doesn’t understand—or care to understand—the details.” Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill on Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham focused his ire on Miller, saying, “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years.”

But Miller is only an adviser, with limited clout. Kelly, as chief of staff, controls the flow of information to Trump. The shutdown drama makes clear that he, in fact, is the most powerful anti-immigration force in the White House, having sidelined the bipartisan deal on the budget and immigration that Graham and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin had negotiated.

“Kelly is emerging from his usual behind-the-scenes role to become one of the president’s chief conservative anchors on the immigration issue, a spot once occupied by former chief strategist Steve Bannon,” The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday. According to Vox, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez said “Kelly has ‘now turned into one of the most ardent proponents of very restrictive immigration policy,’ and aligned himself with conservative immigration hardliners in the Senate including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA). Gutierrez added he hoped a White House Chief of staff would remain independent on these issues, but said he’s seeing no such autonomy from Kelly.” Durbin offered a similar analysis, complaining, “As soon as the guest leaves the office, Gen. Kelly calls in the right wingers and they bat it down and say you can’t do it. We’ll never reach an agreement unless there’s a more open approach at the White House and the president is more constructive.”

When Kelly, who had served as Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, became chief of staff last July, replacing an overwhelmed Reince Priebus, he was widely seen as someone who could bring a much needed discipline to the White House. “He has regimented, as no one has ever done before, the flow of paper, people and information inundating an omnivorous and undisciplined Mr. Trump,” the Times reported. Like national security advisor H. R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, Kelly was supposed to be one of the “adults in the room”a coterie of mature figures whose whose military experience would ground the Trump White House in reality. (Kelly and Mattis are both retired generals, while McMaster is a still serving lieutenant general).

Yet the way the shutdown farce has played out in Washington shows that Kelly’s purported skills in bringing order to the White House have only created more disorder during critical negotiations. Because Trump has no interest in the details of policy, Kelly has taken on an outsized role for a chief of staff. He’s become a separate power center in the White House, with seeming veto authority over presidential negotiations.

As several pundits have noted, Trump’s not really presiding over his own administration:

On the incendiary issue of immigration, where Kelly and Trump have very different instincts. As the Times reported, Kelly “emphasized immigration enforcement inside the country rather than policing the borders while Mr. Trump has indicated that is not as high a priority for him.” Trump wants funding for his border wall, while Kelly wants an enforcement crackdown. (According to the Journal, “White House aides said that Mr. Kelly isn’t as restrictionist as Mr. Miller: Mr. Kelly privately has told lawmakers and top aides he would like to see an agreement protecting young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, but he has insisted that other restrictions be included in any deal.”)

Setting aside the merits of these respective policies, this dual presidency breeds chaos. But there doesn’t seem to be any will in Congress to challenge it. It is noteworthy that Graham criticizes Miller, but is softer on Kelly:

That Graham is attempting to stay on Kelly’s good side reveals just how powerful he thinks Kelly is.

But Kelly’s power is necessarily fragile. For now, the president has allowed his staff to take the reins in the shutdown negotiations. As the Post reported, “President Trump stayed out of public view this weekend as delicate negotiations continued to fully reopen the federal government, sharing his opinions publicly only in sporadic, tweet-sized bursts. His closest advisers and allies would like this hide-and-tweet strategy to continue.” Kelly, among others, “cautioned Trump against negotiating with Schumer.”

But Trump has a proven history of pushing aside staffers who get too powerful, or who are perceived as such. Bannon’s tenure was short-lived due in part to articles hailing him as the real president. Last week, Trump reportedly bristled at news that Kelly said the president’s view on the border wall had “evolved.” As the Associated Press reported, Trump “made a series of calls to associates and vented about his chief of staff, bitterly complaining that Kelly made him look like a flip-flopper on his signature campaign issue, according to a person familiar with the conversations but not authorized to discuss private conversations.”

The open question is whether Trump will continue just grousing privately, or if he has the will to take back the reins of his presidency.

Because Trump is manifestly unfit for office, people of all political stripes have been found consolation in the idea that his staff is really running the show. But the current fight over immigration demonstrates that, at least in this one case, it would be better if Trump started asserting himself. Trump might be a nativist, but by all indications he’s far less ideologically rigid than Kelly and Miller. He wants a deal that makes him look presidential—a photo op of him shaking hands with Schumer. Democrats are willing to give Trump that victory if it means protecting Dreamers. But Trump has to be presidential to make that happen.