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Kelly in, Scaramucci out as Trump denies reports of 'WH chaos'

President Donald Trump talks with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly after he was privately sworn in during a ceremony in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump, Monday, July 31, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci resigned Monday in what the press office said was an attempt to provide a “clean slate” for new Chief of Staff John Kelly, just 11 days after Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced his resignation to give Scaramucci a “clean slate.”

Officials say Scaramucci stepping down came at the behest of Kelly, who was sworn in on Monday morning to replace outgoing chief of staff Reince Priebus.

“Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team. We wish him all the best,” the White House said in a statement.

The staffing move signals a possibility that Kelly, a retired general, will take hold of the reins of an unruly administration that has struggled to stay on message, but experts caution it is far too soon to conclude he can maintain order.

Earlier Monday, President Donald Trump said at a Cabinet meeting that he believes Kelly will do an “absolutely superb” job.

“We all know him, we respect him, admire what he’s done,” Trump said of Kelly, who until today was his secretary of homeland security. “And at Homeland, what he has done has been nothing short of miraculous.”

Kelly steps into a role vacated by Priebus last Friday, one week after Spicer announced his resignation. While it is not uncommon for several people to hold these positions over the course of a presidency, these changes all come less than seven months after Trump took office.

Trump touted Kelly’s work at DHS, one of the agencies that has so far been most successful in implementing his agenda. Under Kelly’s leadership, DHS has seen a drastic drop in illegal border crossings, and he has stood by some of the administration’s more controversial policies, including the travel ban that has been challenged by several states in court.

“The president highly appreciates a strong leader and successful people,” said Paris Dennard, a Republican strategist who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.

With four decades of military experience and the commitment to discipline and order that comes with that, Dennard is hopeful that Kelly will exert leadership and strength in the West Wing.

“What we know about President Trump is that he always finds the right person for the right time,” he said. Priebus was important in the beginning to help the administration of outsiders establish relationships with Capitol Hill, but Dennard argued Trump now needs someone who can plug the leaks pouring out of his administration and focus on advancing his agenda.

“This president likes wins,” he said. “This president likes to have victories…. Now he wants to have these wins for the American people.”

The chief of staff’s job, originated under President Dwight Eisenhower, has changed with the presidency, in some cases focusing more on managing access to the president inside the White House and at other times handling more legislative matters.

“The chief of staff is the gatekeeper,” said Shirley Warshaw, a professor of political science at Gettysburg College and author of “The Keys to Power: Managing the Presidency.” This is especially important with a man like Trump who is reportedly often swayed by the last person he talked to and who appears to have granted Oval Office walk-in privileges to more aides than usual.

“The job of the chief of staff is to make sure that random people aren’t walking into the Oval Office and convincing him to do something,” she said.

According to Charles Walcott, author of “Governing the White House: From Hoover through LBJ” professor emeritus of political science at Virginia Tech, a good chief of staff protects the president’s time and maintains staff discipline.

“Theoretically, the main role of the chief-of-staff…is to organize and manage the White House staff itself,” he said.

As Trump is a unique president, his administration poses unique challenges for a chief of staff. Among other things, Walcott suggested the sniping, leaking, and backstabbing among his aides may work better in the business world than in Washington.

“That really defeats any effort a chief of staff might make to organize the place better,” he said.

Current White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated that may change if Kelly desires because all staff will report to him.

“General Kelly has the full authority to carry out business as he sees fit,” she said when asked by reporters Monday whether aides, including Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, will continue to have direct access to the president.

According to Dennard, the Trump administration also faces an unusually hostile political environment.

“There’s a sense that people are just rooting for him to fail,” he said, including the mainstream media and many in Congress.

Trump himself complained Monday about the growing perception of turmoil at the White House.

“Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!” he tweeted.

Despite the president’s protests, the sudden resignation of three senior aides in the last week-and-a-half does suggest at least a little bit of “WH chaos.”

Other events in the course of the last 11 days include:

  • Multiple news cycles were waylaid by profanity-laced attacks from the new White House communications director aimed at two other senior staffers
  • Rebukes from the Boy Scouts and numerous police departments over comments the president made at public events
  • Warnings from members of Congress against firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions after Trump repeatedly criticized him for being “very weak”
  • Confusion when Trump revealed a massive policy shift on transgender soldiers on Twitter that many in the Pentagon were unaware was coming
  • Senate Republicans fell one vote short in their latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act despite Trump’s tweets of encouragement

Amid these controversies, the New York Times reported last week that Trump had grown enamored with the idea of a general as chief of staff, and with Kelly in particular as a top candidate for the job. Although former military officials may be expected to have a strong sense of discipline and respect for the chain of command, Walcott said success in the job is driven much more by the personalities involved than their backgrounds.

“I think it comes down more to the individual, more to the relationship that the president and chief of staff have with each other,” he said.

The last general to be placed in this position was Alexander Haig, who was appointed by President Richard Nixon while he was still on active duty in 1973 and shepherded the White House through the final days of the Watergate scandal.

The president’s allies have argued Kelly will help restore discipline, but there are already doubts about his ability to rein in the most undisciplined official in the White House: President Donald Trump.

“His biggest problem is that there hasn’t been any sense of discipline from the president himself,” said Russell Riley, author of “Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History” and an associate professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

The few days since Kelly’s appointment was announced have been filled with angry tweets from the president often attacking other members of his own party. On Monday morning, he reiterated threats to eliminate subsidies to health insurance companies that make premiums affordable for low-income families and subsidies for members of Congress.

“The real test of whether the new chief of staff has power is whether he has control of the Twitter account,” Riley said.

Democrats are skeptical that Kelly can tame the Trump White House. Strategist Craig Varoga said Kelly is just the latest of many people who have come in with the expectation that they will moderate Trump’s behavior, but none have.

“Robert E. Lee was arguably the most competent general and best strategist during the Civil War, but he joined a lost cause and failed in his mission,” he said. “General Kelly, for whatever reason, has signed up for his own lost cause, and there’s no way that he will ever succeed in changing the character or impulsive behaviors of the 71-year-old who currently inhabits the White House.”

The resignation of Scaramucci might prove to be a sign of change, though.

“It certainly seems to indicate that he has been empowered more than his predecessor was to impose his own sense of discipline on the White House,” Riley said.

However, he noted that Scaramucci’s profane tirade against Priebus last week angered a lot of people in Washington and around the country, so that may have played a role in his departure as well. Sanders said Monday that Trump found the comments “inappropriate.”

There is also no evidence yet that Kelly will succeed in silencing the leaks that so often anger Trump. At the same time Scaramucci’s resignation was announced, CNN was reporting that two sources revealed Kelly was so angry about Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May that he considered resigning. Trump has been fiercely defensive of that decision, so the news could create tension between the president and his new chief of staff.

Although the staff drama and palace intrigue tend to captivate the media and the beltway crowd, Dennard doubts the general public cares nearly as much about this as they do about health care or national security.

“They don’t know who Anthony Scaramucci is,” he said. “They probably don’t care.”

He pointed to a recent Rasmussen poll showing that more than 60 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump’s performance despite the setbacks he has faced and the ongoing game of musical chairs among his staff.

“The American people care more about actions than personnel,” Dennard said.

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