The White House chief of staff position is again in transition. It is the top staff job in government — a momentous position that merits a broad look at its roles and responsibilities. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s prolonged and unceremonious ouster of retired Gen. John Kelly as chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney has accepted the role in an acting capacity after a public audition process in which many potential candidates disclaimed interest in the job. Given the record of dysfunction in the Trump White House, it is hardly surprising. Mulvaney enters this ever-demanding role, serving a president who is sinking further into legal trouble, working in a White House that should be bracing for the coming period of divided government, not to mention some troubling economic warnings. Plus, Mulvaney already has one other major, full-time job: director of the Office of Management and Budget (He recently shed his second full-time job: director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).
Here, I seek to outline some of the ideal roles that would be fulfilled by a modern White House chief of staff, an exercise that reveals how far current White House operations have strayed from those ideals. I offer these thoughts as someone who’s worked in the White House under six chiefs of staff—and has directly work for another three vice presidential chiefs of staff—during the Clinton and Obama administrations.
In his book The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple describes the job as the person who “translates the president’s agenda into reality.” It requires a blend of presidential trust, managerial skill, substantive gravitas, and political acumen. I used to tell new employees that the two most precious resources to be conserved by the White House staff are the president’s time and reputation. The White House chief of staff is the principal guardian of those resources.
Not all models for the role of chief of staff are the same. Some chiefs of staff bring particular strength in congressional relations, or they are great as the president’s surrogate on television, or they have particular political skills for positioning the president for reelection, or they have particular acumen at managing the federal bureaucracy. But there are some general themes and responsibilities that have developed over time.
The nature of White House power is proximate and derivative rather than formal. In any White House, the chief of staff is ultimately only as powerful as the president’s actual – or perceived – confidence in them. In the best-case scenario, the president will trust the chief of staff. But that trust requires further empowerment by means of visible signals to other advisors that the chief of staff’s authority to manage the White House staff is to be observed – if the president reinforces the chief’s role in the chain-of-command, that chain will less likely be breached. That said, a president should always maintain a method of obtaining feedback on the chief of staff’s job performance from insiders and subordinates, but that should be done in a quiet process that does not itself upset the person’s job.
At bottom, however, even the most skilled chief of staff will fail if the president does not trust and support their judgement. Trump has actively undermined his first two chiefs.
Here are some of the major roles expected of chiefs of staff in recent administrations:
The chief of staff needs to be in a position to offer sound advice to the president. How is the president positioned vis-à-vis his agenda, Congress, world events, and the economy? How is the president positioned for reelection? What is critical to the president’s legacy? The chief of staff should be intimately engaged helping the president with these big picture questions, and then formulating the plan and building the staff to achieve the president’s goals on behalf of the American people.
At the same time, it is important that the environment created allows the chief of staff to maintain credibility as an honest broker in the policy coordination process. If a chief of staff becomes too closely identified with a policy or political faction within an administration, they could sacrifice others confidence in their opportunity to get a fair hearing, which in turn incentivizes back channel communications or leaks to the media as a means of presidential persuasion.
Presidential Time Management
The chief of staff needs to ensure that the president’s time is used optimally. Typically, there are a far too many demands for personal presidential attention than one human being can meet. Every day comes with a firehose of crisis management, travel, intelligence briefings, diplomatic interactions, policy decisions, congressional interactions, press responses, administration management, and ceremonial duties. Each president will have a spread of constituencies that need meaningful attention and expectations managed.
While more difficult to do, there also needs to be some time carved out for longer-term strategic planning and agenda setting. On the political side, the president needs to campaign, fundraise, and endorse others. On the personal, the president needs to meet family commitments and (dare I say it?) engage in self-care. The president’s schedule needs to be prioritized, productive, and on some level, humane.
Within those general parameters, the schedule needs to be personalized to the particular president – their sleep schedule, work rhythms, learning methods, propensity for lateness, and moods. For example, Leon Panetta realized that President Bill Clinton was not operating well under an unfocused meeting schedule, and he added structure and emphasized meeting priorities. In stark contrast to Clinton, President George W. Bush was notoriously on time for meetings.
Trump’s schedule has operated outside the norm. As president, he reportedly has large, multi-hour blocks of “executive time” during which he watches cable news, tweets, and makes phone calls. He has played golf over 160 times as president, and — unlike his predecessors — he had not visited troops in a war zone until almost two years in. So far, Trump’s schedule has not been one that reflects the gravity and magnitude of the job.
Presidential Information Flow
There is usually an avalanche of briefing papers, decision memoranda, executive actions, and correspondence directed to the president. While the White House staff secretary manages paper-flow logistics for the Oval Office, the chief of staff should be ultimately responsible for designing and enforcing an orderly and effective process for information triage, gatekeeping, and delegation of those responses that might not require the president’s personal attention. Like with time management, the chief of staff should adapt the information flow to the president’s schedule, learning style, and work habits.
There has been a lot of reporting about Trump’s aversion to traditional presidential daily briefs on the most sensitive intelligence reports: He prefers oral to written briefings and has generated a feeling among the intelligence community that he is uninterested in their assessments. There has also been reporting about Trump’s desired briefing book format – that looks a lot like boiled-down happy talk. These all raise alarm bells about whether the president is consuming the vital information required for sound decision-making – one of the chief of staff’s core responsibilities.
One of the sensitive jobs for any government staffer is “managing up.” On one hand, if your boss is the president, the chief of staff should be ever aware of the public trust invested in that constitutional office – a trust that has been granted to the president, not the White House staff. As the ultimate symbol of staff hubris, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig had infamously claimed “I’m in control here” in the chaotic hours after Reagan was shot. Staffers should disabuse themselves of that self-grandeur and never fancy themselves the true power behind the throne.
That said, even as an honest broker, there are still decisions to be made by the chief of staff about how best to manage the president in support of the president’s service to the American people. What time of day is the president most open to a contentious policy dialogue? Does the president have an allergic reaction to certain messengers? When an idea that would run afoul of the law gathers steam, who has the credibility to tell the president “no”? These soft “president whisperer” skills are essential to helping to keep the president’s better angels front and center, and a White House operation humming.
Trump has proven himself largely ungovernable, and pretty quickly chafed at Kelly’s efforts to impose some constraints on presidential spontaneity. Notwithstanding countless Trump advisers, political allies, and lawyers advising the president to stop generating incendiary tweets – especially about matters under investigation – he continues to do so unabated. And CNN reported that last spring Trump started turning to his personal cell phone to avoid Kelly’s monitoring of the White House switchboard, raising all sorts of security concerns about who may be listening to his calls. For his part, Kelly asks that the history judge him for what he helped restrain Trump from doing.
Staffing the White House
Presidents will always come in with a rolodex full of people whom they are inclined to appoint to senior positions in the White House and agencies. But that list is inevitably far shorter than the some 4,000 positions requiring presidential appointment across the federal government. The chief of staff will likely be intimately involved in this process, including the vetting and—for those requiring it—Senate confirmation.
As to the White House itself, the chief of staff should have a significant amount of input in staffing decisions and a commitment from the president for management authority to run the White House operations. That would include the ability to fire people who have violated ethics rules, undermined colleagues, bucked the proper information channels, or otherwise refused to adhere to the chain of command.
When Trump initially brought him on, Kelly was able to assert some command discipline on the White House, including the firing of communications director Anthony Scaramucci and National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick. First families always add sensitivities to White House staff management because they are not on the organizational chart, but still have some official and ceremonial duties. However, the omnipresence of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, on the White House senior staff create all sorts of dynamics that render true managerial authority for a chief of staff impossible.
One of the most essential functions of the White House is coordination of national policy by bringing the various government agencies and experts together for input in order to prepare and refine presidential decisions. National security, economic policy, and domestic policy run through an interagency process that should be designed to ensure that all the relevant stakeholders and experts are heard. There is a premium on organization and efficiency, and the process should be one that winnows issues down to the presidential decision point. The chief of staff needs to ensure that this process is working properly. Here, that credibility as an honest broker on processes is critical. Failure of the interagency policy coordination process can increase the chances of substantive policy failure because expertise was left on the table or a critical agency did not buy in to the policy decision. A bad policy process also incentivizes media leaks, because those shut out of the process may turn to external pressure.
In the Trump White House, there is a chaotic and uneven record. While I disagree with the policy, Trump has had success in his policy goals of realizing a regulatory rollback. There are also policy areas in which the interagency process under Trump looks similar to those that worked in previous administrations. However, the Trump cult of personality has led to snap decisions and sloppy products that lacked the expertise, vetting, legal advice, and discernment of a traditional policy process. In an egregious example, the president declared an abrupt and total U.S. military withdrawal from Syria in the wake of a phone call with Turkish president without having first convened the national security council. Over at the Pentagon, Trump’s impulsive decision represented the last straw for Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned by the end of that week. The policy process in the Trump administration is not a picture of health.
Like other functions, the chief of staff retains penultimate responsibility for White House external communications. The White House should be striving to advance the president’s policy agenda through an affirmative communications strategy. The White House should also have defensive crisis-communications capacity – the ability to conduct research-based rapid response in an effort to minimize distraction and get back to the agenda. Further, as I wrote the week Trump took office, there is a premium on truth-telling at the White House for all sorts of moral, ethical, and practical reasons.
Unfortunately, the Trump White House has only sunk further into dishonesty. The Washington Post’s fact checkers counted over 4,200 false or misleading claims by Trump in his first year-and-a-half. Recently, they added to their four-Pinocchio scale by adding a new category – the “Bottomless Pinocchio” — to capture Trump’s penchant for repeating a debunked claim over and over. Recent polling indicates that the majority of the American people no longer believe him.
Harkening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats, the White House communications trend over the last 20 years has been to find ways to bypass the traditional media as gatekeepers and find direct communication platforms for the president to engage the populace. Both Obama and Trump have used social media, especially Twitter, for this purpose.
But the Trump White House has become better known for attacking the press as “fake news” and “enemies of the people” than for answering to it. Trump has reduced the number of presidential press conferences, the daily White House press briefings, and largely eschewed traditional media outlets for conservative platforms.
Message discipline, too, is lacking. There is an ongoing Twitter joke that every new scandal or outrageous presidential tweet represents the start to “Infrastructure Week” – a shorthand wink and nod to the lack of message discipline out of the Trump White House. These are all problems that a chief of staff would traditionally have a mandate to fix, but these largely appear to flow from the president himself. As such, without a presidential change of heart and conduct, Mulvaney will be largely ineffective at addressing White House communications credibility.
The chief of staff will, on occasion, need to be able to speak on the president’s behalf. The chief of staff could be called as a presidential surrogate in negotiations on the Hill, or during presidential travel, or in media appearances. Chiefs of staff have varied in their embrace of this role, especially as to external relations. A number of chiefs of staff have chosen to limit their public media exposure in favor of behind-the-scenes maneuvering. But this is one of those roles in which the chief of staff can serve as a force-multiplier, adding another voice to the president, vice president, and their spouses. Kelly kept a fairly low media profile during his tenure, but Trump undercut him in several instances that Kelly did go on air.
Standards of Conduct and Legal Compliance
The chief of staff, along with the White House counsel, are responsible for upholding standards of conduct befitting the White House staff and establishing a culture of compliance with the law and ethical rules. Part of the job is setting and promulgating formal policies to the White House staff. But another part is steering the president away from pitfalls, leading by example, and setting an example by punishing those who run afoul of the rules.
Trump’s failure to divest from his business interests has created daily ethics challenges for this White House, and launched significant litigation over whether he is accepting emoluments prohibited by the Constitution. In addition, as noted above, a culture of dishonesty has settled in. Moreover, Kelly set a terrible example by lying about White House knowledge of allegations that then-staff secretary Rob Porter had physically abused his ex-wives. In one of the most stark examples of this White House’s failure to create a culture of ethics and compliance: A number of Trump White House staffers have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits use of official resources for political purposes, yet none of them have been fired or otherwise meaningfully punished. Demanding accountability for rules violations is an essential part of the chief of staff job, but the chief of staff does not appear to have that kind of management authority for the top staffer in the Trump White House.
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Mulvaney assumes the role of chief of staff at a crucial time for the Trump presidency. He would have his work cut out for him even if Trump amended his counterproductive ways. But with this particular president, in this toxic political environment, it is hard to see a pathway for even the best White House turnaround specialist to succeed. Of course, all of this matters because the American people rely on the White House to assist the president in doing the public’s business. We do not want a crisis — be it a war, economic freefall, disaster emergency, or disease pandemic — to be the moment all that White House dysfunction comes home to roost.
(Editor’s Note: reflects correction in 13th paragraph to include the President’s December travel to visit troops in Iraq.)
Photo of John Kelly and Mick Mulvaney at the White House, prior to their roles as chief of staff, by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.