Scaramucci’s loud, vulgar arrival seems to have finally broken an increasingly fragile arrangement. Priebus, along with Bannon, tried to block the appointment, so when Scaramucci came in, Priebus was not only weakened by the loss but also gained a colleague with a grudge to nurse. Worse, Scaramucci announced that he would report directly to the president, bypassing Priebus. Then came the New Yorker interview.
The departures of Spicer, who resigned over Scaramucci’s appointment, and Priebus leave the GOP establishment almost entirely cleaned out of the White House. Kelly’s elevation, meanwhile, is the latest case of Trump placing his hope in generals. He appointed several retired members of the top brass to his team—Kelly, the current secretary of homeland security; Defense Secretary James Mattis; and Michael Flynn, the national-security adviser fired in February for lying to the vice president. (Scaramucci was said to covet the chief of staff’s job as well.)
Trump has seen an unusual number of high-level departures from his administration for such a short period, including the firing or resignation of a chief of staff, a press secretary, a deputy chief of staff, and a national-security adviser. With Kelly’s departure, Trump will now need to find a new secretary of homeland security, a Senate-confirmed position with important responsibilities—not least the construction of Trump’s beloved border wall and the implementation of his beleaguered travel ban. Trump repeatedly humiliated Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the last week, raising the possibility that he could also leave the administration. Meanwhile, hundreds of Senate-confirmed jobs remain without even a nominee.
The New York Times reported Friday morning that Trump felt he needed a general to lead the White House, someone who could instill more discipline. Kelly will have his work cut out for him. Priebus was ineffective at ending infighting in the White House, but the basic problem is not the chief of staff but the presence of a fractious group of advisers and a scattered president. Kelly will be expected to cut down on leaks, too. But leaks are a symptom of dysfunction, and the way to fix them is to fix the underlying chaos. It’s unclear whether anyone can do that right now.
In fact, given Priebus’s plight, the way Trump has attacked Sessions, and the impossible job that faces him, one wonders what led Kelly to leave a job he seems to have enjoyed leading the Department of Homeland Security. Earlier this spring, I spoke with Leon Panetta, whom Bill Clinton asked to leave a job directing the Office of Management and Budget to become chief of staff at a difficult moment one year into his term.
“I had seen the kind of disruption at the White House and wanted to remain OMB director,” Panetta recalled. “I said, ‘I’m probably more valuable to you as OMB director,’ and I’ll never forget what Clinton said. He said, ‘You know, you could be the greatest OMB director in the history of the country, but if the White House is falling apart, nobody’s going to remember you.”