Nothing lasts forever, but recently few things have a shorter life expectancy than the tenure of a Trump appointee.
Since the president’s inauguration a scant 15 months ago, many scores of officials have come and gone. Some have been fired and some have quit. Just last week, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson — nominated to be Trump’s second secretary of Veterans Affairs despite possessing no experience that would qualify him to run the second-largest federal bureau — quit rather than continue with the confirmation process. Collectively, the turmoil has produced muddled policy, spasmodic White House execution and unprecedented turnover in the government of a major world power.
Until recently, one could take slight solace in the maturity and constancy of officials widely perceived to be providing the president with adult supervision. Now we can be far less sanguine.
Until recently, one could take slight solace in the maturity and constancy of officials widely perceived to be providing the president with adult supervision: the national security advisor, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the chief of staff. Now however, after the departures of H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, we can be far less sanguine. This feeling of uneasiness increased exponentially this week after reports surfaced that chief of staff John Kelly has called Trump “an idiot” on multiple occasions. Kelly called the reports "total BS." Still, such anecdotes seem to be setting the stage for a Kelly departure in the near future.
With Kelly out, the question becomes who of the president’s various advisors will truly have his ear? Ultimately, the last man standing after this presidential game of musical chairs may surprise you.
Of the cabinet secretaries who remain in the White House, many have had their hands full battling not only the cumbersome bureaucracies for which they are responsible but also charges of impropriety, waste and abuse of power. Luckily for people like HUD Secretary Ben Carson and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, their ineptitude pales in comparison to colleagues like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, allowing them to generally fly slightly below the radar. And in an environment without strong leadership on Capitol Hill, there isn’t the congressional oversight needed to restore order.
For the time being, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, at least, still enjoys the president’s favor and has also managed to keep his hands clean. Even the most astute of observers have a difficult time understanding how we can use our massive military might without a well-articulated set of strategic objectives. Trump only seems to understand retaliation, so ordering a missile strike to punish Syria is not a complicated thing for him to understand. Mattis helped him execute this strike, and perhaps managed to stay on Trump's good side in the process.
Being a president’s chief is a tough job in the best of administrations, but trying to curb Trump’s impulsiveness is a uniquely thankless task.
Kelly is a different story. His influence has decreased significantly since he took the job about nine months ago, when Reince Priebus was forced out. Being a president’s chief of staff is a tough job in the best of administrations, but trying to curb Trump’s impulsiveness is a uniquely thankless task. And, while Kelly may be able to control the formal flow of people and information, he can’t stop the president from being influenced after hours by, say, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, two people whom Trump trusts implicitly but whose views often do not coincide with Kelly’s.
Indeed, Kushner, who does not have top-secret security clearance because of Kelly, may be one of the people most opposed to the chief of staff. Kelly is the kind of man who will remain in his post until he is officially relieved, meaning he will have to be fired. When this happens, Kelly will be replaced either by someone whose principal attribute is acquiescence or perhaps — since Trump has said he can be his own chief of staff — by nobody.
This would imply that the last man standing is likely to be Mattis. But as the ranks are thinned of thoughtful, experienced officials, the secretary of defense himself will become more isolated. This means that policy will be dictated by the president’s small inner circle: his family, Miller and John Bolton.
Yes, if Bolton plays his cards right he could very well be one of the most powerful men in Washington by the end of the year — if not sooner — due to his proximity to the president. Indeed, one can argue persuasively that, although Bolton would have taken the National Security Council job anyway, the prospect of being a large fish in a very small pool made the appointment impossible to refuse.
Yes, if Bolton plays his cards right he could very well be one of the most powerful men in Washington by the end of the year — if not sooner.
Trump has been described as a person who tends to be most influenced by the last person to speak with him, making access paramount. And so in this scenario it would be Bolton calling the shots, a man in a position of enormous power in a job he acquired, unlike most others at or near the top of the food chain, without the trouble and inconvenience of Senate confirmation.
And General Mattis? His policy influence will remain only to the extent that he agrees with Bolton. If not, and if the two of them butt heads once too often, Trump will be forced to choose between the two. In this scenario, Trump will fire Mattis, and then maybe Bolton, too. Last man standing, indeed.
Retired Col. Jack Jacobs earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars. Jacobs is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a military analyst for NBC/MSNBC. His memoir, “If Not Now When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need,” won the 2010 Colby Award.