The word from the White House, following the dramatic elevation of John Kelly as the new chief-of-staff is that, in future, there is going to be “more structure, less Game of Thrones” in the way the Oval Office conducts its business. And for those of us who long for Washington to display clear and effective leadership, the appointment of this disciplined and thoughtful former marine general couldn’t have come soon enough.
United States President Donald Trump might reject suggestions, as he did in a recent tweet, that the White House has descended into chaos. But that is not how it looks to the outside world, particularly following the dramatic rise, fall and ignominious dispatch of Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s foul-mouthed former communications director.
The whole point of having someone to run communications at the White House is to project the president in a positive light. In the hit TV series The West Wing, staffers such as Leo McGarry and Toby Ziegler go out of their way — sometimes putting their own reputations in jeopardy — to protect the president they work for.
Scaramucci, a former financier also known as “The Mooch”, opted to pursue a radically different strategy during his short-lived tenure. He openly derided some of Trump’s closest aides, including Reince Priebus, the outgoing chief-of-staff, whom he subjected to a foul-mouthed tirade. Resorting to four-letter abuse might be common practice on Wall Street, but when uttered by a senior administration official, it not only demeans the current president, but the standing of the presidency itself.
Kelly, therefore, deserves credit for acting so quickly to remove the obnoxious Scaramucci, who was unceremoniously escorted out of the White House shortly after the general had sworn his oath of allegiance. And, after all the political turbulence generated by Trump’s first six months in office, it is sincerely to be hoped that Kelly succeeds in his mission to instil a semblance of order.
The endless political shenanigans at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might have provided a rich seam of material for satirists on programmes such as Saturday Night Live, but they have done little for the president’s stature, either at home or abroad. On the contrary, the endless in-fighting between professional administrators such as Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, who proved his executive credentials by running ExxonMobil’s global energy empire, and administration ideologues such as Steve Bannon, the alt-right media executive, risks severely undermining Washington’s global standing at a time when the world can least afford it.
A good example of how these tensions undermine US credibility can be found in Trump’s speech at the Nato summit in May, where, to the dismay of many European leaders, he omitted to reassert Washington’s commitment to Article 5, the so-called collective defence clause, which stipulates that an attack on one member state is taken as an attack on the entire alliance. In the original draft, which had been approved by two of the other generals serving in the administration — national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, as well as Tillerson — Trump was supposed to have declared: “The US commitment to the Nato alliance and to Article 5 is unwavering.” But this was deleted at the last minute, apparently on the orders of Bannon, who entertains strong reservations about the future of the transatlantic alliance. Trump was obliged to correct the omission during a subsequent visit to Poland.
The problem with diplomatic missteps such as this, however, is the mixed message they send to Washington’s foes, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is making its final preparations to deploy as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of Nato’s territory later this month. It is therefore vital that the alliance’s leaders maintain a united front if they are to deter further acts of unprovoked Russian aggression in eastern Europe and the Baltics.
With highly regarded generals of the calibre of Kelly, Mattis and McMaster holding key positions in the Trump administration, the expectation now is that Washington will provide the strong leadership needed to keep the Russians in check. The same goes for North Korea, whose decision to continue with its provocative ballistic missile tests has no doubt been encouraged by the belief in Pyongyang government circles that, with so much in-fighting taking place in Washington, they have no need to fear any retaliatory measures on the part of the US.
The appointment of another distinguished American military officer to a high-ranking position in Washington should persuade them otherwise. Trump believes Kelly’s appointment was a “great day” for the White House. But this will be the case only if the president shows he is serious about ending the internal squabbling that has so far characterised his administration, and done so much to damage his global reputation.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.