The position of White House chief of staff (first officially occupied by Eisenhower’s top aide Sherman Adams) has been an intermittently powerful and perilous job, used in different ways by different presidents. Some, like Adams and Richard Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman, were virtually surrogate presidents with unlimited authority only restrained by personal loyalty to POTUS. Others, like Ford’s young CoS Dick Cheney (you may have heard of him) and Bush’s Andrew Card, shared actual power with other key aides. Still others (JFK’s Kenneth O’Donnell and Clinton’s Mack McLarty) were personal confidants of the president more than power brokers. And a number of presidents had serial chiefs of staff who focused on different tasks at different times (e.g., Obama employed former congressman Rahm Emanuel to push his legislative agenda, and later turned to Bill Daley to improve his relationship with business leaders).
It has never been clear what exactly the 45th president wanted from a chief of staff, or whether he really wanted one. At least one past president, Jimmy Carter, was thought to have wanted to be his own chief of staff, and that did not work out well. Donald Trump was said to have decided to hire John Kelly to instill discipline in the White House, but to the limited extent Kelly tried to do so, his boss didn’t really have his back, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is as dysfunctional as ever. So if that “model” has been discarded or never seriously pursued, it will be interesting to see what other options Trump is considering.
One alarming possibility has been raised by the apparent self-promotion of right-wing congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina as a candidate for the gig via the Washington bulletin board of Politico:
“Serving as Chief of Staff would be an incredible honor,” Meadows told POLITICO Playbook. “The President has a long list of qualified candidates and I know he’ll make the best selection for his administration and for the country.“
Meadows is the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, the assemblage of archconservative House members who have been a regular thorn in the side of their own party’s leadership in that chamber, and self-appointed guardians of Trumpism against the temptations of compromise or bipartisanship.
Politico suggests that Meadows as CoS would represent a “skilled brawler” who would be ideally suited to serve as a sort of one-man War Room during House Democratic efforts to investigate the president and his cronies:
Meadows and his best friend Rep. Jim Jordan, a Fox News TV star and hero on the right, have almost single-handedly pushed Republican chairmen and GOP leaders to start counter-investigations of the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation, a key talking point for Trump who’s panned the probe as a “witch hunt.”
The duo is often on TV assailing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and touting Trump’s legislative achievements. And with Mueller closing in on Trump and newly empowered Democrats eager to highlight scandal out of the West Wing, Meadows’ knowledge of Congress and willingness to fight for him has appealed to Trump, White House insiders say.
So to put it mildly, Meadows would not likely serve as some sort of intermediary with congressional Democrats, or as a conciliatory public face of an administration needing allies. And just as clearly, he’d be someone whose relations with standard-brand Republicans would be characterized by threats and intimidation more than sweet murmurings. Meadows was, after all, a key figure in two recent conservative revolts against the GOP, the 2013 government shutdown and the political defenestration of then-House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. And he played a role in negotiations that made his party’s legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare too toxic to pass the Senate.
More subtly, Meadows as White House chief of staff would be in an ideal position to render moot conservative elite efforts to maintain some sort of independence from Trump. As the president’s loyal satrap, he’d represent the fusion of “movement conservatism” and Trumpism. And without question, he’d project himself as totally loyal:
White House officials describe Meadows as “a man on a mission trying to charm the president.” From the outset of the administration, Meadows’ energetic defenses of Trump on television earned him several invitations to the Oval Office for signing ceremonies, where Trump advisers noticed he would linger to regale the president with compliments.
Among other things, Meadows has been overheard telling Trump what a historic leader he is, how extraordinary and unprecedented the Trump administration is and how awful the media can be….
All in all, if Trump goes in this direction it should be interpreted as a declaration of total war against all his enemies in both parties and in the hated news media. There are already many signs that Trump thinks intensified polarization is his best defense against both political and legal threats to his presidency; if the institutional GOP and his electoral “base” regard any allegations against the president as yet more evidence of a partisan “witch hunt,” then he’s insulated against impeachment and probably need not worry about legal consequences for his and his campaign’s actions so long as he’s in office. And near-universal reflexive support from Trump’s party would also keep some of the scarier extra-constitutional options for survival on the table, as nightmare material if not imminent realities.
Meadows or someone like him as chief of staff is probably the closest Trump can come to occupying that position himself, with the added advantage of having a hatchet man who’s well known in Congress and the news media. If it happens, look out for a very Trumpy future.