As retired General John Kelley wades ashore to his White House bunker – I mean office – there is more hope than assurance that he will be able to bring order to the chaos. He is a man who spent 40 years of his life as a Marine, initially as a non-commissioned officer and later as an officer commanding a rifle platoon. Ultimately, he rose to be commander of the United States Special Operations Command, or SOCOM.
The fact that he was a grunt, a rifleman who rose to the rank of sergeant before being commissioned as an officer is significant. Marines know how to fight, not lie. The corps has a strong ethos of honesty and the harshest punishments doled out in basic training are for lying. Of all the branches of the military, the Marine Corps is considered the most disciplined, structured branch. They insist that every Marine is trained as a rifleman, no matter what job they ultimately work. Riflemen understand the necessity of following orders, trust, accountability and the chain of command. This is why I doubt he will last long as Trump’s Chief of Staff.
Kelley will no doubt establish discipline and order with subordinates. The problem is that no matter what the organizational chart says, it is not likely he will know who those subordinates are. For example, Melania Trump issued a statement that she looked forward to working “alongside” Kelley. There is no person “alongside” Kelley, he is the Chief of Staff.
A second problem is that he is subordinate to Trump, who has a character and modus operandi that is antithetical to Kelley’s training and nature. Kelley values and follows procedure; Trump has always been known as a man who “wings it.” Kelley is meticulous, prepared, intellectually curious, and, well, we all know how Trump is that regard. Kelley understands and appreciates the value of traditions. To Kelley, traditions are there for a purpose greater than the individual. Trump is a man who violates norms and traditions to serve his own interests. Kelley understands the value of the chain of command, while Trump is known for what is politely called a “horizontal management model” with him at the top and everyone else on the same level of authority.
Worse still, is Kelley’s ethos that you do not challenge the orders of your superior. The origin of the White House dysfunction is Trump himself. He creates chaos by playing one subordinate against another, and by making impulsive, unilateral decisions that have often run totally contrary to his team. The qualities of character that have defined Kelley are antithetical to his boss. At Homeland Defense, Kelley was somewhat insulated from the moment-to-moment chaos Trump causes. However, he will now be confronted on a continuing basis with behaviors that would drive any Marine commander crazy. Kelley can handle his subordinates, with the probable exceptions of family members. (Imagine a Marine with a commanding officer who allows his daughter and son-in-law to develop strategy and give orders!). How will he handle a man with a narcissistic personality disorder who is a pathological liar? Kelley, unless he is capable of totally compromising life-long principles, would never assent knowingly to a lie, a cover-up, or collusion with Russia.
The only other weathervane in this regard is retired Gen. McMaster, another Marine who apparently has become persona non grata at the White House (Trump had a dinner party last weekend with most of his Cabinet – at a Trump resort of course – except McMaster who was not invited). Trump waited until McMaster, his Secretary of Defense, was out of country to make his transgender announcement via Twitter. After McMaster returned the Joint Chiefs issued a statement essentially voiding the Commander in Chief’s Twitter order with a back handed suggestion that Trump follow procedures and the chain of command next time. The only certain thing about Kelley taking this job is that if he does leave early then it will be a huge warning flare for the country.