In the 2010 blockbuster “Unstoppable,” Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try and ultimately succeed in stopping a runaway train, loaded with acid and fuel, before it crashes and causes a disaster. Four-star Marine Corps general John Kelly is trying to stop a White House that is also out of control, but there are two minor differences. The first is that life isn’t a Hollywood movie. The second is that on Kelly’s train, Trump is still in the driver’s seat, he still thinks reports of his malfunctions are fake news and he is still gleefully pushing the accelerator button and hurling forward as if there’s no tomorrow.
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Kelly, for example, couldn’t have known that on his first day as chief of staff, the Washington Post would report that Trump personally crafted the deceptive statement that purported to explain his son Donald’s June 2016 meeting with Russian representatives, in which damning information on Hillary Clinton was supposedly on offer. At best, the news casts the President as purposely providing false information to the public. At worst it implicates him in a conspiracy to obstruct justice.
Kelly also couldn’t stop Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona from publishing an extraordinary opinion piece in Politico, in which he lamented his party’s blind backing for its President. The article reflects the growing divide between Trump and GOP lawmakers, who are either genuinely disillusioned by his performance or represent states in which chumminess with the President is now a liability rather than an asset.
But before Kelly tries to tackle the probe into Trump’s ties to Russia or the brick wall he seems to be hitting in Congress or Jared Kushner’s amateurish and indiscrete confessions of a Middle East mediator, which were made public on Tuesday, or any of the myriad critical matters that are or should be on the President’s desk, Kelly needs to put his own house, now the White House, in order. The first thing he did, understandably, was to sack Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci whom Trump had appointed only ten days ago.
Of course, the media had a field day with the rapid-fire dismissal of Scaramucci, and late night comedians had a ball too. Scaramucci was a colorful character even before he unleashed his vulgar stream of consciousness in the New Yorker in which he lambasted his fellow White House seniors. He certainly turned into a news magnet when it seemed he had engineered the departure of two of his rivals, Spokesperson Sean Spicer and the man he described as a schizophrenic paranoid, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
The fact that Scaramucci was now being fired himself seemed like poetic justice, and also made staff changes at the White House resemble a game of musical chairs. It highlighted Trump’s poor judgment in hiring people who might actually help him rather that do him harm, as well as that of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who urged him to hire the man widely known as The Mooch. It strengthened perceptions that Trump’s White House, like many a runaway train, was going off the rails altogether.
But the truth is that Trump’s acceptance of Kelly’s demand to be in charge of hirings and firings in the White House, and to get rid of Scaramucci forthwith, was a rare indication that the President is aware after all that his caboose is running loose and that he needs to do something to hold it steady. A sane President would never have hired an arrogant tycoon like Scaramucci, whose ego rivals Trump’s, in the first place. A rational President wouldn’t have let him stay on for a second after he let a reporter hear him foaming at the mouth without making sure his dirty words were off the record. His hiring of Kelly, however, provides a faint glimmer of hope that theoretically at least, he’s willing to change his ways.
Scaramucci’s dismissal is the kind of basic leadership exercise that Kelly and other army officers are used to carrying out the moment they take up new commands: Find the most annoying troublemaker and make an example of him. That’s how Kelly makes sure everyone knows that he’s running the place now, that he won’t suffer fools or show-offs and that other senior staffers should think twice before going around him. By firing Trump’s man Scaramucci, Trump also signaled Washington and the world that there’s a new boy in town, and change, hopefully, is in the offing.
Of course, Scaramucci was only the first obstacle of many more to come. Kelly will have to deal with other White House power brokers, including Steve Bannon, on the one hand, and Ivanka and Jared, on the other. He will have to start manning the scores of empty positions in the White House and the many more hundreds of vacancies throughout the Administration. He will have to start mending Trump’s fraying ties with Republicans on Capital Hill and to reach out to Democrats, if Trump is to have any hope of passing meaningful legislation. And he will have to bring some order and sanity to the decision making process in the Oval Office, starting with efforts to distance Trump from his Twitter. On Tuesday, the President made clear he would do no such thing.
But even if Kelly carries out all his missions, his chances for success remain dismal. Unless Trump entrusts him with the day-to-day management of the Presidency, as Richard Nixon did when Alexander Haig became Chief of Staff at the height of the Watergate Affair, Kelly’s impassable obstacle remains a President who is manifestly unsuited for his job but seems to think he’s God’s gift to mankind. In many Superman movies the hero from Krypton stops the runaway train, because he’s stronger than a locomotive. Kelly is a tough soldier and a determined general, but Superman, as far as we know, he ain’t.