John Kelly and Donald Trump: Charlottesville Showdown

One month ago, I wrote an article called  Why don’t we hear more about Reince Priebus?”, where I speculated that the unremarkable White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, a man apparently lacking any of the characteristics that have made previous Chiefs of Staff successful, would be relevant again on the national stage within a year– implying that he’d be leaving the administration.

Two weeks later, Anthony Scaramucci happened. The new WH Communications Director’s entrance was highlighted by the resignation of Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and over the course of the next week, he stirred up unprecedented levels of controversy. He gave unconventional press briefings, engaged in profanity-laced tirades directed towards Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, missed the birth of his own son to spend time with Donald Trump, and eventually succeeded in driving Priebus out of the West Wing, a move announced by Donald Trump via Twitter.

Priebus’ replacement, General John Kelly, was widely touted as the man who could bring discipline to the Trump Administration. Here was a no-nonsense, Patton-esque, authoritative, four-star Marine General– especially impressive compared to his predecessor, a nonauthoritative Wisconsin lawyer with a funny name. It seemed to the nation that if anybody was capable of alleviating the drama unfolding in the White House, it was this guy. That assumption was lent credibility soon after, when Kelly asked Scaramucci to resign.

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In the following weeks, Kelly seemed on track to restore some authority in the White House. With him at the wheel, the President’s statements became more measured, and his approval ratings increased markedly for the first time since his inauguration. Aides reported that Kelly and Trump often argued loudly in the Oval Office– a good sign, especially when the defining quality of an effective Chief of Staff is their ability to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear. Remember, General Kelly is by no means a traditional Chief. Like Priebus, he hasn’t been a longtime friend or loyalist to Trump, and unlike Priebus, he lacks the political capital that usually helps administrations push their agendas through congress. But at this point, the Trump Administration’s priority is not passing legislation, it’s staying afloat and managing damage control, something that Kelly seems very capable of doing.

Since the White Supremacist Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, things have changed rapidly. Trump’s initial statement, after a counter protester was killed by a neo-nazi, claimed that “many sides” were to blame for the violence. Two days later, facing massive opposition from his own party, Trump gave a revised statement specifically calling out fascists and neo-nazis. But when he faced additional backlash, his statement widely condemned as “too little, too late”, he arranged a press conference to clarify.

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The day of the press conference, President Trump’s twitter activity reflected an emerging divide between the measured leadership of John Kelly, and the impulsive, populist leadership of Donald Trump. Early in the day, the President tweeted an image of a train, labeled “Trump”, running over a cartoon character, labeled “CNN”, the news network that Trump most frequently refers to as “Fake News”. The tweet drew criticism, largely because the image of a Trump-driven vehicle mowing down a symbol of free speech was evocative of the events in Charlottesville days earlier, when a Trump Supporter and Neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of peaceful counter protesters. Trump deleted the tweet soon after, but later in the day, he retweeted a comment made by an established conspiracy-theorist, that the media was ignoring violence in Chicago. The user he retweeted has also floated false narratives in the past, once accusing Hillary Clinton and her husband’s former Chief of Staff of running a child sex ring in the basement of a ping-pong themed pizza restaurant in Washington DC.

But the president’s erratic twitter activity was overshadowed by his comments later that evening. The President gave off-the-cuff remarks, doubling down on his initial statement, claiming that the violence in Charlottesville was from “all sides”, and going back on his second statement, which had disavowed the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazism specifically. This time, he appeared to condemn counter protestors and alt-righters as moral equivalents, saying, “You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.”

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President Trump delivering his statement where he condemns “both sides”

Trump also conflated founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, with Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General who fought to dissolve the Union: “George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to take down statues of George Washington?”

Finally, Trump took the opportunity to talk about himself and his business exploits, saying: “I mean I know a lot about Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a great place that has been very badly hurt over the last couple of days. I own, actually, one of the largest wineries in the United States — it’s in Charlottesville.”

The President’s statements were an attempt to appeal to his dwindling base. And he may have restored some faith, among a small, extreme portion of it. But he didn’t do himself any favors with the people that he needs to succeed as a president. The RNC requested an urgent meeting with the president after his remarks, as did many top GOP donors. On social media, dozens of the most prominent members of his own party responded with disapproval, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and– perhaps most notably– Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose strong rebukes of the president have stirred speculation that he’s planning a 2020 bid against his party’s incumbent president.

John F. Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, on Tuesday, during Trump’s new’s conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan

What went through General Kelly’s mind today, as the president stood in the lobby of Trump Tower, attacking the press, congress, and the Democratic Party, defending himself, and promoting his own continuing business ventures? There’s still plenty of room to speculate at this point, but from the pictures of Kelly standing in the room where Trump spoke today, it’s looking more and more like the White House is approaching another high-level shakeup– and soon.

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