Is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about to be fired? Last week President Donald Trump removed his national security adviser H.R. McMaster, replacing him with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. McMaster’s firing is the latest in a series of changes to Trump’s inner circle, and it immediately prompted speculation that Kelly is the next to go. Rumors regarding Trump’s dissatisfaction with Kelly have circulated for months, with the president reportedly openly speculating about his replacement. However, the difficulties Kelly has faced as chief of staff are not solely a function of Trump’s mercurial temperament. They also reflect a more fundamental tension that inheres in his particular role running the White House on the president’s behalf. Most chiefs see their primary purpose as conserving the most precious asset a president possesses – his time. To do so, chiefs try to centralize managerial authority in their own hands. But this assertion of power can create a backlash. Under powerful chiefs, presidents frequently chafe at what they see as their increasing isolation, a lack of exposure to differing viewpoints, and a sense that the chief is usurping their prerogatives. Reportedly, Trump has repeatedly expressed exactly these sentiments.
The irony is that Kelly is doing exactly what Trump hired him to do last July in response to a series of policy fiascos, including a controversial travel ban mired in legal disputes, the failed Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, reports of White House staff infighting, historically low approval ratings, and an overall sense that his presidency was failing. In the ensuing eight months, Kelly has asserted his administrative control through a major overhaul of White House staff people and processes. One result is the unprecedented rate of turnover among Trump’s White House aides, much of it purportedly with Kelly’s blessing. According to media reports, McMaster is but the latest victim of Kelly’s purge.
In addition to the staff housecleaning, Kelly has tried to impose greater discipline over White House decisionmaking and messaging. On this score, however, he has been less successful, in part because Trump seems unwilling, or incapable, of sticking to organizational routines or exercising self-discipline. Indeed, the President bristles at any perception that Kelly is “managing” him. The result is a recurring pattern of high profile disputes between the President and his chief of staff: Trump tweets or states a controversial position or belief, Kelly walks backs or clarifies Trump’s statement, and the President responds by implicitly or publicly rebuking his chief of staff. Two months ago, for example, Kelly reportedly told legislators on Capitol Hill that Trump’s campaign statements on immigration were “uninformed,” and described the President’s views on building a border wall as “evolving.” The next morning Trump responded by tweeting “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.” The exchange fueled rumors that Trump would replace Kelly. However, Trump then publicly reaffirmed his support for his chief of staff.
To be sure, some of Kelly’s wounds are self-inflicted, evidence that his years in the military left him ill-prepared to address the political dimension of his job. Examples abound, such as when he accused undocumented immigrants of being too lazy to sign up for protections afforded by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and appeared to back Staff Secretary Rob Porter after accusations of abuse by Porter’s two ex-wives. As former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta remarked: “John is a great Marine . . . but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”
However, the combustible relationship between Trump and Kelly is not simply a function of their personal idiosyncrasies. Barack Obama’s buttoned-down approach to the presidency was the antithesis of Trump’s in terms of impulse control and adherence to organizational routine. And yet Obama went through five chiefs during his two terms as president, including three during his first four years in office. George W. Bush is perhaps an exception to this pattern – his first chief, Andrew Card, served for six years before leaving of his own accord, and Card’s successor finished out Bush’s second term. But Bush’s predecessor Bill Clinton also had high turnover, with four chiefs across his eight years as president. Both George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan White House experienced similar rates of change.
In part this frequent turnover reflects a mismatched skill set. As Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and I show, presidents often initially choose their White House aides, including chief of staffs, from individuals who have proven their mettle on the campaign trail. However, the skills that prove so useful during campaigns tend not to translate well into the process of governing. Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign strategist who briefly reprised that function in Trump’s White House, exemplifies this tendency. After being appointed to the White House to insure that Trump’s campaign promises were fulfilled, Bannon was fired shortly after Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff. Bannon later conceded that “In many ways, I think I can be more effective fighting from the outside for the agenda President Trump ran on. ”
But while the mismatch in functions may explain White House staff turnover more generally, there is a more fundamental reason for the instability in the chief of staff’s position. As my Middlebury College colleague Amy Yuen and I demonstrate formally in our ongoing research program [gated], it is very difficult for a chief to organize the White House staff to simultaneously maximize efficiency and insure that the range of information and advice necessary for effective decisionmaking reaches the President’s desk. In the modern era, White House staffs have expanded in size and internal complexity, prompting chiefs to centralize power in order to achieve administrative efficiency. Carried too far, however, such efforts can isolate presidents from much needed input and advice. Moreover, presidents may worry that their decisionmaking authority is being usurped by their chief White House aide. This clash in expectations is what contributes to the high turnover among chiefs.
How might Kelly avoid the fate that so frequently ensnared his predecessors? It depends first and foremost on Trump properly understanding his organizational needs. The large size and internal complexity of the modern White House make it imperative to designate one individual to coordinate the flow of paper and people in and out of the Oval Office. However, this does not mean Trump should grant that individual primus inter pares status within the White House organization. Instead, as Yuen and I show, presidents gain informational advantages by allowing multiple White House power centers, and giving each equal access to the president. Ideally, this entails distributing White House staff authority across two or more political and policy advisers, and pitting them against each other in a competitive advising process, rather than placing specialists in distinct functional silos reporting separately to a dominant chief of staff. A competitive advising structure, we argue, forces policy and political disputes to the president, where they should be resolved, rather than allowing them to be settled by a chief of staff or worse, by lower-level aides.
This approach undoubtedly has costs. Most notably it requires a president who is comfortable dealing with dissent among his advisers, and who can tolerate the unavoidable negative media coverage that staff disagreements will produce, particularly when aides use the press to take on rivals and to pressure their boss to choose their side. For their part, chiefs must be willing to manage this open competition, rather than stifle it, even at the risk of creating the perception that they are not fully in charge of the White House structure. Eight months into his tenure, it is an open question whether Kelly is willing and able to manage this type of competitive advising structure. It is even less clear that his President will let him. But the fate of Trump’s presidency rests in large part on whether he, and Kelly, grasp the impact of organization on presidential success. If they cannot, Kelly’s days as chief of staff are likely numbered, and Trump will almost certainly experience a recurrence of the organizational dysfunction that has afflicted his presidency for much of his first year in office.