Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

With John Kelly gone, Trump is stacking the political deck for Mueller and Congress battles

As a creature of politics, the most likely new chief of staff Nick Ayers could not be further from his predecessor

A retired four-star General, John Kelly prided himself on building a structured and ordered White House (AP)
A retired four-star General, John Kelly prided himself on building a structured and ordered White House (AP)

The departure of Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly is leaving many in Washington concerned that with “Mr Order” gone by the end of the year, the US President will be left to his worst instincts and inhibitions.

The retired four star general was recruited to the position 17 months ago with the mission of restoring discipline and a sense of normalcy to a chaos-ridden White House. The Presidency was marred then by infighting and dysfunction between former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, and by lack of direction on policy.

Mr Kelly succeeded to a great extent in building a structure of communications and a political operation inside the Presidential team. At the beginning he played the role of a gatekeeper around Mr Trump, filtering the flow of information, and limiting everyone’s access - even members of the Trump family - to the Oval Office. He also helped in forcing out campaign stars such as Steve Bannon, Omarosa Manigault and Sebastian Gorka while bringing in more traditional conservative figures. This earned Mr Kelly credit among establishment Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, who saw in him a force of reason and moderation inside the White House.

But Mr Kelly who prides himself in not being an ideologue and staying neutral during the 2016 Presidential election, is not a political operator. Unlike his predecessors such as Rahm Emanuel and Andrew Card, the retired General is not a Washington insider and that was one reason for his departure as well as a growing rift between him and Mr Trump.

The New York Times reported that Mr Kelly agreed with Mr Trump to announce his departure on Monday, but instead the US President reneged on the deal and made the news on Saturday while chatting with reporters.

“John Kelly will be leaving toward the end of the year… a great guy” Mr Trump said. He then added that Mr Kelly’s successor will be announced in a matter of days.

A White House shake-up is not out of the ordinary after US midterms, especially when the President’s party is faced with a major loss in one of the two chambers. The Republican Party lost 40 seats in the House following the 6 November elections, and Mr Trump is reshuffling his team to bring in more experienced hands in adjusting to a new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

The new reality explains Mr Trump’s preference to pick Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, as a replacement to Mr Kelly. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that Mr Trump told one of his associates on Thursday night: “Stop calling John [Kelly] for anything. Call Nick. He’s my guy.”

Mr Ayers, 36, is the antithesis in resume and character to Mr Kelly, 68. Unlike the former General, Mr Ayers is a creature of electoral politics, a millionaire who raised his fortune through political consulting and a known operator inside the Republican Party. He is also close to both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.


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While Mr Ayers is expected to be named for the job, his appointment might only be interim due to his family’s plans to move to Georgia according to the New York Times. And if Mr Trump chooses to go for someone who would stay until the Presidential election in 2020, other names being floated include US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. Mr Mnuchin, according to Politico, is not interested in the position.

Another battle that Mr Trump is stacking the decks for is the Mueller investigation. After firing his attorney general Jeff Sessions and naming William Barr, Mr Trump is gathering experienced Republican political hands to withstand the legal fight. CNN also reported Mr Kelly was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller's team in recent months and the questions centred around potential obstruction of justice by Mr Trump.

Mr Kelly’s departure, the 21st official to leave a Trump White House, comes as storms gather around the US President fuelled by a new Democratic majority in the House, and a tightening noose around former Trump aides from the Mueller probe.

Updated: December 9, 2018 02:42 PM