John Kelly is already grating on the president and severely restricting his media diet.
Donald Trump’s hiring policy rarely places competence as a high priority. The president values personal chemistry, loyalty, and good looks far above a person’s actual abilities, and his praise has rarely translated into success for his underlings. In that regard, the hiring new chief of staff John Kelly may be one of Trump’s most successful personnel decisions.
A new story from the New York Times by Maggie Haberman and Glen Thrush details how Kelly has tried to still the chaos inside the White House, often frustrating Trump in the process. Kelly is forcing people to stick to appointments and schedules, pushing the president to weigh more carefully moves like ending DACA or banning transgender people from the military, and even persuaded Trump to put out a White House-issued, spell-checked response to North Korea’s latest missile firing, instead of just tweeting about it.
These are admittedly low bars, and even Haberman and Thrush acknowledge that it’s basically routine office management. But imposing any kind of order in the toxic daycare that is this White House is a feat. Still, Kelly’s most impressive accomplishment may be his ability to curate the information that the president gets.
Mr. Kelly cannot stop Mr. Trump from binge-watching Fox News, which aides describe as the president’s primary source of information gathering. But Mr. Trump does not have a web browser on his phone, and does not use a laptop, so he was dependent on aides like Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist, to hand-deliver printouts of articles from conservative media outlets.
Now Mr. Kelly has thinned out his package of printouts so much that Mr. Trump plaintively asked a friend recently where The Daily Caller and Breitbart were.
What we know about Trump’s briefings before Kelly’s tenure doesn’t inspire confidence. Aides have told people meeting with the president to keep printouts short, one page if at all possible, to keep his attention from wandering. He requires twice-a-day packets of positive news stories about himself that still need to be “more fucking positive,” according to the people assembling them. And as he’s said himself, Trump prefers to make gut decisions without reading or learning much about whatever he’s talking about. So it’s incredibly ambitious to try to turn these briefings into something productive.
It’s unsurprising that Kelly would edit out Breitbart stories. He reportedly had a hand in pushing for Bannon’s exit from the White House, and since the self-styled super-villain returned to running the site, Breitbart has been antagonizing the generals in Trump’s administration and Trump himself after his speech on Afghanistan. But while it’s comforting to know Bannon isn’t hand-delivering cherry-picked news to Trump (even if Trump still texts him in secret), it’s shocking how isolated the president is becoming. He doesn’t seem to have basic Internet access beyond Twitter. You don’t have to be a cyber-security prodigy like Barron to turn on a laptop, right?
There are genuine concerns about the presence of so many generals inside of Trump’s White House, blurring the line between civilian and military control of the government. And a streamlined, functional Trump administration could just mean more pain and damage moving forward. But no matter what else he accomplishes, Kelly would be in over his head if he wanted to get Trump to stop watching Fox & Friends, a show the president is so personally invested in that he live tweets replies to hosts while they’re on air.
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