As President Trump continues his nuclear saber-rattling with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, America’s best hope for averting catastrophe may be White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
“Donald Trump is who he is, and now more than ever before in modern history, the White House chief of staff may be the thin line between the president and disaster for us all,” Chris Whipple told the Morristown Festival of Books on Saturday.
Whipple interviewed all 17 living presidential chiefs of staff for his New York Times best-seller, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.
A chief of staff serves at the pleasure of the president, controls access to him, and ensures he gets good information, Whipple told a large audience at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
The chief of staff also keeps the West Wing “on-message,” and helps navigate Washington politics to execute the president’s agenda.
But he shoulders an even more crucial responsibility, one shared by no one else, with the possible exception of the First Lady.
“The chief must be able to walk into the Oval Office, close the door, and tell Donald Trump what he does not want to hear,” Whipple said.
Presidents who try to forego a chief of staff — as JFK, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton did–quickly encounter chaos in the White House, he said.
Reince Priebus fared badly in that role for President Trump. Trump belittled him as “Reincy” — once calling him into the Oval Office to swat a fly — and never forgot how the former Republican National Committee chairman suggested he quit the presidential race when the infamous Access Hollywood tape surfaced, Whipple said.
“Donald Trump’s first six months with Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, were proof you cannot run the White House like a family real estate firm, with advisers coming and going, no one empowered, and no chain of command,” said the author, winner of a Peabody award as a producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and Emmy awards for ABC’s Primetime and ABC News.
Priebus’ replacement, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, appears to have plugged some of the news leaks plaguing the White House. Although Trump seems impressed by military brass, his tweets and volatile policy statements have not been reined in, Whipple said.
“We’ve seen some things that Donald Trump has done that no empowered White House chief should stand for. One of them was that unhinged tirade in Trump Tower about Charlottesville.
“Another was — you know, it’s one thing to tweet about ‘Rocket Man,’ Kim Jong-un. It’s another thing to have those words on the teleprompter in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. No empowered, competent White House chief of staff would have allowed that to happen, in my opinion,” said Whipple, executive producer of Showtime’s The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs.
‘RECKLESS THREATS OF NUCLEAR WAR’
A strong chief of staff, he said, would impress upon Trump the difference between campaigning and governing.
“When you campaign, you demonize your opponent. To some extent it’s unavoidable, and it’s effective. Obviously, it worked for Donald Trump. It doesn’t work when you’re trying to govern. When you’re governing, you have to build bridges to your opponents. You have to get beyond your base.
“I don’t think there’s any indication that Trump understands that. Donald Trump seems to know one thing, and one thing only. He has one gear: And that gear is divide, demonize.
“That’s proved to be ineffective. That’s one reason why he has failed to pass any legislation.”
Kelly, who commanded a task force that fought in Iraq in 2003, and who served earlier this year as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, has walked into a situation unlike any faced by prior chiefs of staff, Whipple said.
“No other president has used his bully pulpit to express solidarity with neo-Nazis. No other president has used Twitter to make reckless threats of nuclear war… Given the nature of this president, who almost every day demonstrates that he is temperamentally unfit for office, Kelly must also think about the unthinkable.”
Nobody can countermand a president’s order to launch nuclear weapons, Whipple said.
Former chiefs of staff, he said, are betting that Kelly; Defense Secretary James Mattis, another retired Marine general; and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, can dissuade Trump from venturing down that road.
Kelly should emulate Alexander Haig, the only other general to serve as chief of staff, Whipple said.
“During the final days of Watergate, when Richard Nixon was wandering the halls, talking to the oil portraits and drinking heavily… he took the precaution of making sure that he and defense secretary James Schlesinger would be in the loop when it came to the nuclear codes.”
When President Reagan underwent surgery after being shot in 1981, James Baker — widely considered the gold standard of chiefs of staff — pondered whether to invoke the 25th Amendment to transfer power to the Vice President.
Baker declined, Whipple said, because it would have looked like a power grab. And he knew Reagan would be coming out of surgery soon.
“Donald Trump is not coming out of surgery,” Whipple said.