Accepting the Republican nomination for president three years ago, Donald Trump told delegates in Cleveland, “I alone can fix it.”
John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, offered an alternative on Saturday: Aides alone can fix it.
Speaking at the Washington Examiner’s Sea Island Summit, Kelly took an implicit swipe at his embattled successor, Mick Mulvaney, by recounting a warning he said he offered the president as he left the job.
“I said, ‘Whatever you do’—and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place—I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t hire a yes-man, someone who won’t tell you the truth. Don’t do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached,’” Kelly said. He said he has “second thoughts” about his resignation in December. “It pains me to see what’s going on, because I believe if I was still there, or someone like me was there, he would not be kind of all over the place.”
The comments are noteworthy not only because Kelly has been mostly quiet since leaving the White House. Kelly’s premise is that without aides who are willing to stand in his way, the president of the United States will break the law and abuse his power, and will ask his aides to break the law.
This is an impression that is confirmed elsewhere. A new book by a speechwriter for former Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly recounts that Trump instructed Mattis to “screw Amazon” out of a lucrative contract, because he was angry at coverage in The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation found that Trump tried to persuade aides to lie and obstruct justice. And of course, the current impeachment investigation has turned up a growing pile of evidence that Trump directed subordinates to extract a quid pro quo from Ukraine, and may have illegally withheld military aid.
Aides have long treated the president like a child, unable to control his whims and in need of tutoring. Supporters have tended to put this a different way, arguing that Trump’s flaws should be forgiven because he is “not a politician.” These claims of ignorance no longer hold water. After nearly three years as president, he is no longer an outsider, and as the nation’s top executive-branch officer, Trump can be expected to understand the law and follow it. Yet Kelly is plain: Without someone to stop him, the president will commit impeachable offenses.
Whether leaving was really up to Kelly, or whether it would have mattered if he had stayed, is up for debate. First, by the time Kelly left, he was reportedly not on speaking terms with Trump. (Perhaps this explains why his advice went unheeded or unheard; the president denied in a statement that Kelly ever said it.) Moreover, the idea that Kelly succeeded at keeping Trump in line is self-serving but absurd—congressional committees may stay busy for years investigating matters that took place on his watch. And Kelly was ideologically in sync with Trump on many issues, diverging largely on execution and style.
But the Kelly era at the White House was placid only by comparison to the unprecedented chaos of the Reince Priebus period. The president remained capricious and reckless, and he engaged in extensive, uncharged obstruction of justice. It is remarkable that at this late stage in the president’s term, some people still believe that he can be controlled or cajoled into running an orderly, law-abiding government, or that unelected aides are the proper stewards.
Nonetheless, Kelly’s warnings about the president surrounding himself with sycophants were dramatically illustrated by the White House’s response. “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great president,” Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that must have sounded better and more rational in her head than it did on the page. If some Trump lieutenants are convinced that the president is bound to break the law, others loudly insist that he is infallible.
Neither view is encouraging. Americans should expect that their president can withstand criticism and scrutiny, but they also can’t place their hopes for rule of law in unelected staffers restraining the duly elected president. A president who can’t be trusted not to commit impeachable offenses on his own is a president who can’t be trusted to be president.