President Trump has decided to replace his chief of staff. That’s his prerogative, and it seems reasonable given how hard he appears to have found it to work with John Kelly of late. Kelly has served in the job for just under a year and a half, which is the average tenure of the presidential chief of staff since the job was created in the 1940s.
But as befits his general pattern, Trump is going about replacing his chief of staff in an absurd, shambolic fashion. He appears to have begun the process by no longer speaking to his current chief of staff and then passive aggressively firing him. He then nearly announced a replacement (whom he apparently likes, in part, because the man looks a little bit like Trump did at his age) only to have the candidate tell the world (on Twitter, appropriately enough) that he didn’t want the job. And now Trump is considering alternatives, more or less in public, most of whom seem not to want the job either.
All of that raises a rather basic question: What actually is the job at this point? What would a job description for President Trump’s chief of staff look like?
Normally, the overarching description of the chief of staff’s job is to make the president’s job easier. But that has never really been how either outsiders or insiders have thought about the chief’s job in this administration: Everyone other than the president himself has looked to the chief of staff to restrain Trump and keep him from following through on the worst of his instincts and ideas. And Trump himself has had trouble articulating an idea of the job as making his own job easier because even two years into his presidency he does not seem to have a very clear concept of exactly what his own job is, as a practical matter.
To clarify this unusual problem, we might consider the examples of the last three presidents. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama approached the job of the president as a kind of chief politician — they basically liked public policy and their model of the presidency was Franklin Roosevelt, moving big programs through the legislative process from the White House. They wanted, and generally had, chiefs of staff who did the grunt work involved in keeping that going and enabled them to do the more pleasant (if not always easy) work of big-picture negotiation and (especially) public salesmanship. They were different from one another — Clinton was much more gregarious (if you know what I mean) and enjoyed the personal side of politics, Obama more cerebral and enjoyed conversations with overconfident experts. But their basic approaches had a lot in common, and so did their chiefs of staff.
George W. Bush approached the job of the president as a kind of chief executive (which, after all, is the president’s role in the system). He liked decision making, and saw his role as settling the hard questions that the executive branch below him could not settle. His model was more like Eisenhower than FDR, and he wanted and had chiefs of staff who organized the policy process so that it reached the president in the form of questions to be answered by considering the trade-offs among alternatives. These descriptions paint too stark a line between these presidents, but get at some important differences.
Donald Trump, needless to say, does not fall into either of these categories. He approaches the job of the president as a kind of chief performer — a tribune of public sentiment who functions more as an outsider commenting on events than as the ultimate insider in American politics. He wants to be seen as effective and successful, but is interested in neither legislative deal-making nor executive decision-making. He wants his staff to say good things about him and get other people to say good things about him too.
There is room, in this kind of model of the job, for a chief of staff who averts catastrophe, makes sure the boring administrative work is done well, and gets the president to make decisions that cannot be avoided. That would describe a chief of staff who does important work for the president, but not a chief of staff whose work this president would appreciate or find satisfying. Hence some of the difference between what everyone else (including people who do not consider Trump a menace but just want him to succeed) wants from Trump’s chief of staff and what Trump himself wants from him.
From the president’s own point of view, there is surely an argument for not having a chief of staff at all. And that wouldn’t be crazy, though it probably wouldn’t be wise. Not every president has had a chief of staff, after all. The job was conceived in the FDR years, as the president’s responsibilities over a ballooning federal bureaucracy became too much for the old private-secretary system to handle. It then got its militaristic title under Eisenhower, and had taken on its contemporary form by about the mid-1970s. That form has not been universally applauded. In fact, the perception that the chief of staff had built up too much power in the Nixon and Ford White Houses led Jimmy Carter to promise not to have a chief of staff at all when he ran for president in 1976, and then to go through most of his term in office without one. He eventually decided he needed one, though, as has every president since.
But that doesn’t mean that the need for a chief of staff can’t be questioned. Trump’s approach to the presidency means he probably cannot be satisfied with any chief of staff for long. It might therefore even mean that Trump should not have one. But if he were to do that, the president would need to have some other approach in mind to doing his job and meeting his responsibilities. And he plainly doesn’t. Maybe it’s time to rethink the structure of the White House staff, and maybe Trump is pointing to that need, but he doesn’t seem able to actually do that rethinking.
This is actually a characteristic frustration of the Trump era, well beyond this narrow question of the president’s staff. Because he is utterly oblivious to some of the most basic norms and practices of American government and global geopolitics, Trump has been a disrupter for both good and ill. His flippant and chaotic mode of governing has raised to the surface some fundamental questions about things like what our basic approach ought to be to America’s role in the world or what should be the organizing principles of the Republican electoral coalition. These and others like them are good questions that have needed to be raised in earnest for a long time.
But because Trump has often raised these questions haphazardly — in the course of a tantrum and without an awareness of the reasons or history behind what he seeks to change — he has in effect forced our political system to confront serious questions to which he neither has nor will have any serious answers. This has made the questions seem less valid than they are, and has subjected those who would raise them more earnestly and with an aim to changing the direction of American public policy to ridicule by association. He has helped cement an identification in people’s minds between the desire to question reigning verities and a tendency toward aggressively ignorant brutishness, which in the long run seems likely only to reinforce those reigning verities.
This is true even in those areas (like trade or immigration) where the president’s views are relatively firm and enduring. There, too, he has moved to demolish a pre-existing consensus but lacks a coherent alternative. It is too soon really to say, but it so far seems like this is driving public opinion toward the old consensus views that Trump wants to undermine — for instance, the American public as a whole seems now to be more supportive of both free trade and immigration than it was before Trump started his presidential campaign.
The president has a tendency to start sentences he cannot finish. If he were aware of this, and of the potential and the risks of his penchant for disruption, he might lean on his administration to fill in the spaces he is opening. That could well define a plausible role for his chief of staff, and for the White House team and the administration beyond. But as his priorities and his conception of his job are more performative (and narcissistic), he seems interested only in people who will say he is great and aggravate his critics.
That is the essence of the job that the glutton for punishment who will ultimately step up to be Trump’s next chief of staff will need to perform.
— Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.