If you're wondering whether retired Gen. John Kelly can restore order to the Trump White House as the new chief of staff, three key words from his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of Homeland Security might provide a clue:
I believe in America and the principles upon which our country and way of life are guaranteed. I believe in respect, tolerance, and diversity of opinion. I have a profound respect for the rule of law and will always strive to uphold it. I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations.
I was privileged to hear that blunt "truth to power" quote while serving as one of the "sherpas" supposedly guiding Kelly through his confirmation process.
Kelly knows his way around Washington just fine, having served as the Marine Corps' legislative liaison and an advisor to two secretaries of defense, as part of a distinguished 45-plus year career starting as an enlisted Marine and culminating in two tough, on-the-ground commands in Iraq and the critical combatant commander role for U.S. Southern Command.
As his confirmation vote of 88-11 demonstrated and as I saw up close, Kelly commands immediate respect from Republicans and Democrats. His relationships with members of Congress are real and personal, because they know he will indeed tell it to them straight. He unsurprisingly earlier this year suggested that congressional critics who didn't like the way he was running his agency should have the courage to change the law, or "shut up."
And if any doubt remained about the general's ability to handle himself in the nation's capital, it was quickly cleared up when he assumed the top job at Homeland Security and was immediately confronted with the inept fumbling of the "travel ban" by the White House team. The shambles of an order, slapped down by a series of federal courts, was soon cleaned up under his leadership and has since passed judicial muster all the way to the Supreme Court.
Not to mention an overall performance at the agency described by the president as a "star" turn, with major reductions in border crossings and increases in undocumented immigrants apprehended for deportation.
One reason the general's success can be expected to be repeated at the White House is his understanding of Sun Tzu's observation that "a leader leads by example — not by force." Kelly's personal discipline will be writ large across the White House. There won't be any tolerance of the competing centers of power that occurred under Reince Priebus, but there also won't be any need for the profanity-laced screaming and firing threats of communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
But a bigger reason Kelly can be expected to succeed in instilling structure at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is that he will go beyond generally speaking truth to power to speak truth to Trump. He didn't mince words at his confirmation hearings in questioning the viability of the border wall or the wisdom of a complete Muslim ban, or in stressing the important role good relationships with Muslim clerics played in Iraq.
I am convinced that Kelly will patiently explain to the president that he cannot go on undermining his own most loyal supporters in tweets (a la Attorney General Jeff Sessions), leaving the heavy lifting to others in achieving policy goals (Obamacare repeal), or allow open feuding among members of his leadership team. And he will insist on the power to ensure appropriate procedures are put in place to rein in the madness.
Many of my past or present colleagues and peers have considered and turned down opportunities to work in the White House. I know others in the administration have been thinking about jumping ship.
For newly-minted staff or those thinking about a position (not to mention currently entrenched factions) my advice is to fall in line, at least for now, and put your faith in the new chief of staff. His steady authority, quiet courage, and straightforward style make you want to follow his lead.
Unlike other figures who have associated themselves with this administration, his word hasn't been tarnished. It's even more trusted.
I'm hoping President Trump will listen to that word, and trust it as well. If he does, I'm convinced that Gen. Kelly is just the man to lead the White House out of the current chaos, and to legislative and political successes.
Blain Rethmeier is a managing director for Ditto Public Relations and served as a sherpa for Kelly's confirmation team to be secretary of Homeland Security.
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