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Outsiders vs. Insiders: Can General John Kelly put an end to the White House staff soap opera?

For the sheer amount of soap-opera quality media coverage the White House staff has prompted since President Trump was sworn-in on Inauguration Day, the most recent personnel moves in the executive mansion have created surprisingly little controversy by comparison.

In a nutshell you could characterize the changes as establishment-out, outsiders-in. By all appearances the switches have worked to squelch a lot of the media’s paranoid hyperventilating over the internal workings of this Kelly and Trumpunique-in-history administration.

Nancy Cook of Politico reported, “Under former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, there was no formal policymaking process in the West Wing: no set protocol for meeting with the president, giving him information, or presenting various options with which to make decisions. Sometimes, multiple staffers said, disagreements broke out in the Oval Office in front of the president.

“That disorganization ultimately led to a string of policy failures, including the collapse of health care reform, even though Republicans control both the White House and Congress.

“Now, as President Donald Trump looks to embark on an ambitious fall policy drive that includes tax reform, an infrastructure package and maybe health care—again—his new chief of staff John Kelly is moving quickly to fix those earlier problems in hopes of preventing repeat defeats, according to interviews with five White House officials.”

What, a semi-positive story about the White House staff? Say it isn’t so.

Of course since it’s Politico Cook included an obligatory dig at Trump himself, practically insinuating that not even a Marine general like Kelly could get the president to cease his self-destructive Twitter habit and prevent him from insulting people. Cook cited Trump’s social media feud with Mitch McConnell last week as an example, though many people, myself included, regarded the mild public beat-down Trump administered to the Senate leader as necessary and most definitely warranted.

It’s also clear from poring over a compilation of reports on Kelly and his first couple weeks in the White House that he commands a much greater degree of respect from the media than his predecessor. Priebus was typically depicted as a hapless dolt who wouldn’t tell anyone what to do and couldn’t do anything right during his half-year as Trump’s official enforcer. Some of the criticism was fair and Priebus may very well have been in over his head, but the Wisconsin establishmentarian did lead the Republican National Committee for years and deserves some measure of recognition for the GOP’s recent political successes.

But it’s also evident no one’s really sad (except for maybe Steve Bannon) Priebus is gone. Kelly has reportedly already made a number of improvements including bringing some order and organization to the “circus” and bigger things are expected from here on out. Whether Trump is able to get Congress to go along with his ramped-up policy emphasis is another matter.

There’s a prevailing attitude in Washington that since Trump came from outside the city and the political establishment that he doesn’t possess a good grasp of policy. Such an assertion could be true at the micro level but Trump the candidate did take part in eleven GOP primary debates (he skipped one, remember?), three general election one-on-one forums with Crooked Hillary Clinton and delivered any number of high quality detail-packed policy speeches where the i’s were dotted and the t’s were all crossed.

Every president – including the left’s precious deity-on-earth Barack Obama – needs only to understand the outlines of subjects. The rest is filled in by staff and by Congress itself.

Much of what the media reports in terms of Trump’s dearth of policy gravitas is just another backhand slap at the outsider president himself. Trump has proven to be more than smart enough to handle the office and he’s fulfilling his role as head of state satisfactorily. If General Kelly is able to instill some harmony in the deliberative process, that’s a good thing.

As far as the perceived revolving-door staff turnover problem in the White House, it’s really not much different than other recent presidents have experienced in their first terms – though there’s still a need for caution in Trump’s particular case.

Philip H. Devoe wrote at National Review, “According to National Journal’s method of analyzing staff turnover, if Trump’s first year ended tomorrow, his current staff turnover rate would be in step with the average since Ronald Reagan…

“Even if Trump’s staff changes result in a well-functioning White House, the timing and reasons behind the turnover suggest that he has suffered some spectacular departures unusually early in his first year. Trump hasn’t broken par — at least in this case — yet, but if he doesn’t learn from presidents like Barack Obama, who also had trouble keeping staffers in the White House, he’ll be remembered as chaotic.”

The difference in staff “chaos” between Trump’s White House and Obama’s has a lot to do with the former’s own personal style. Looking back to last year Trump changed his campaign management twice within the span of a half-year when he demoted the controversial Corey Lewandowski in favor of the supposedly less mercurial Paul Manafort and then let Manafort loose about a year ago this time (less than three months before Election Day, mind you) to bring in Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to give the orders.

Bannon and Conway have held on ever since suggesting the “instability” in the Trump operation occurs only on the establishment side. Former press secretary Sean Spicer was a good guy but he was still a product of the RNC. Ditto for Priebus. Both of them obviously had difficulties adjusting to Trump’s unorthodox approach to politics. Logically speaking you can’t go from GOP headquarters to Trump-world and not experience some turbulence.

Spicer and Priebus are now gone as are National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh, Communications Director Mike Dubke, Deputy Communications Director Michael Short, and Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.

A good argument could be made that Trump deserves praise for his willingness to make quick changes when they’re called for. The life-long business mogul isn’t interested in waiting around to try and make square pegs fit into round holes. If someone’s not hacking it, they’re gone. Fair enough.

There are also some preliminary signs that the greater Trump administration staffing shortage may ease soon. The Senate actually confirmed some of his nominees before they left town.

Elana Schor of Politico reported, “The Senate ended its bitterly partisan health care debate last week with little-noticed harmony on confirmations, as more than five dozen picks by President Donald Trump were cleared for senior posts across the government.

“But that spree of approvals still leaves the president with 147 nominees awaiting Senate action — significantly more than the previous four administrations had as of early August, according to a tally kept by the independent Partnership for Public Service.”

Schor notes that Obama had 115 non-judicial civilian nominees awaiting confirmation at the same point in his administration eight years ago, big bubba Bill Clinton counted 87 and George W. Bush tallied 104. So the discrepancy isn’t huge though there are obviously a large number of important high-level positions that are still being held open by the stonewalling Democrats.

It could be only this observer’s opinion but Trump himself doesn’t seem to be in too big of a hurry to fill these government jobs, announcing on several occasions that he didn’t intend to fill all the vacancies and he even sarcastically thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin last week for expelling American diplomats because it would “save a lot of money.”

Trump’s business mindset sees people with big salaries and generous federal benefits as unnecessary taxpayer-funded expenses, at least if they’re fulfilling political roles. Clearly there needs to be some sort of a balance because there’s a lot of work to be done and his cabinet officers can’t be expected to do everything. There’s only so much time in a day, even if Trump himself doesn’t have much hesitation in asking people to dedicate everything to their jobs.

And Congress needs to help too. Mitch McConnell’s senate has been far too slow in acting on Trump’s nominees even if the Democrats are making it difficult to get anything done. If the old saying goes “rules are made to be broken,” then McConnell would do well to pressure his caucus into taking a fresh look at the rules-barriers that are preventing the People’s business from being acted upon.

There are many factors beyond the president’s control in pushing policy changes and improvements. Eliminating the White House staff controversies will help move things along but the entirety of the Republican Party must get onboard if Trump is to Make America Great Again.

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