Wednesday 25 April 2018

'Axis of adults' takes control

Former military generals to bring order to the chaos that is Trump's White House, write Nick Allen and Harriet Alexander

Rise of the Generals: US president Donald Trump and new chief of staff General John Kelly. Photo: Reuters
Rise of the Generals: US president Donald Trump and new chief of staff General John Kelly. Photo: Reuters

Nick Allen and Harriet Alexander

When president Donald Trump was presented with a ceremonial sabre by the US Coast Guard Academy in May, his homeland security secretary John Kelly was at his side. "Use that on the press, sir," Mr Kelly whispered dryly in the president's ear.

It was an example of the uncompromising approach Mr Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, has brought to the White House during his first week in the role of chief of staff.

With his no-nonsense, Bostonian manner, Mr Kelly, 67, has made a blitzkrieg of a start in a job widely dubbed "mission impossible".

According to White House officials, he listens in on calls between the president and his Cabinet secretaries, shuts down ineffectual advisers in mid-flow, has clamped down on the number of people in meetings, and keeps the doors of the Oval Office closed to prevent access to non-essential staff.

An unprecedented number of people had assumed so-called "walk-in privileges" to the president's office, but these have been revoked.

Crucially, Mr Kelly has also secured the agreement of Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner that they will report directly to him, not the president. Some White House advisers have joked about now needing "permission slips" to see the president.

But in an administration that has come to resemble the back-stabbing court of the Borgias, Mr Kelly's arrival is being heralded as a victory for what some senior Republicans call the "axis of adults".

The core of that axis is a triumvirate of former military generals - Mr Kelly, HR McMaster, the national security adviser, and defence secretary Jim Mattis. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson and attorney general Jeff Sessions, both vastly experienced, are also in the group.

At no point since the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, more than half a century ago, have generals held such power in the White House.

"John is part of the axis of adults that are in there now and there will be more consistency in terms of orders," said former US Army general Mark Hertling, who served with John Kelly in Iraq.

"I've seen him bring rigour to a staff process in the military.

"I watched him do it with his Marines. He's very precise in what he wants and doesn't suffer fools.

"There will be discipline in getting information to his boss. What his boss does with it he can't control."

Mr Kelly himself has indicated he will concentrate on "managing the staff" rather than attempting to "manage the president".

Within hours of being sworn in on Monday, he invited Anthony Scaramucci, Mr Trump's ambitious communications director, to his corner office in the West Wing and politely, but firmly, told him to resign.

Then he assured Mr Sessions, who has been belittled by Mr Trump, that his job was safe. The president has since stopped publicly criticising Mr Sessions.

Next, Mr Kelly provided cover as Mr McMaster sacked Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence to the national security council.

While Mr Cohen-Watnick was not a household name, he was a key piece on the White House chess board, an ally of Steve Bannon, the controversial chief strategist.

He was the latest in a host of Bannonites to be purged by Mr McMaster, who is now himself under sustained fire in pro-Bannon media outlets, which suggested the general was "increasingly volatile" and about to be sacked.

The poisonous all-out war between Mr Bannon and Mr McMaster stems from their divergent views on foreign policy, including whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, and will be one of the key internal White House divisions Mr Kelly has to manage.

One former White House official said: "There is an extraordinary amount of back-stabbing going on. But Kelly will protect McMaster." In handling the president, Mr Kelly already appears to have secured a major, if perhaps temporary, victory.

One of the most noticeable and impactful changes in his first week was the tone of Mr Trump's tweets, which were consistently concentrated on the positive performance of the economy rather than personal feuds. Former chiefs of staff have not been shy about weighing in with advice for Mr Kelly.

Leon Panetta, chief of staff to Bill Clinton, said that White House was also beset by initial chaos.

"There has to be trust between the chief of staff and the president," he told the New York Times.

"One chief and he must control all staff, a clear chain of command. Look the president in the eye and tell him the truth. Tell him when he is wrong."

Mr Panetta added: "Buy a big bottle of Scotch."

General Hertling said: "John's not a Scotch drinker, but knowing him, he's probably bought a bottle of Irish whiskey.

"In the toughest of jobs, you'll need that in your bottom right hand drawer to be sure."

The changes to the White House came as America was last week digesting the implications of the decision by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to appoint a grand jury to assist his investigation.

The convening of a grand jury, a standard prosecution tool in criminal investigations, suggests that Mr Mueller and his investigative team will likely hear from witnesses and demand documents in the next few weeks and months.

It was also reported last week that two Republicans on the House intelligence committee travelled to London earlier this summer to speak to Christopher Steele - the British former intelligence officer behind the dossier detailing some of Mr Trump's alleged activities in a hotel in Russia.

The unnamed House intelligence committee aides visited at least two London addresses associated with Mr Steele, who worked for intelligence firm Fusion GPS, including the office for Mr Steele's lawyer.

The Americans, following instructions from Washington, did not meet the former spy. But their attempts to track down Mr Steele - without informing their Democrat colleagues, the Senate or Mr Mueller -have infuriated Washington investigators who were hoping to get to the bottom of the story.

"What is clear is that the president and his allies are desperately trying to smear Fusion GPS because it investigated Donald Trump's ties to Russia," said Tracy Schmaler, a representative of Fusion GPS, in a statement.

Last Thursday night, at a Make America Great Again rally in West Virginia, Mr Trump said: "What in the world is wrong with us as people? Have we not heard enough about the Russians? The Russia story is a fabrication. Most people know there were no Russians in our campaign. There never were."


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