The Gatekeepers!

The Gatekeepers!

Photo credit: Kevin Allen

Have you been in touch with John Kelly?  That was a question posed to former Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush  Josh Bolten about current Chief of Staff  Kelly to President Trump. “You know, not really. I mean, we met several times on several occasions and he’s always been very gracious and said: ‘Oh, we need to get together and talk,’ but when you’re Chief of Staff it’s pretty hard to call us in the middle of the day and say: ‘Why don’t I call up that guy who had this job ten years ago and see if he can help me with this budget negotiation.’  It doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Denis (McDonough, President Obama’s COS) was extraordinarily gracious in reaching out to his predecessors, but he was in a different environment. John Kelly is fighting a pretty big fire every day. Not to say that Denis and I didn’t, but he’s fighting a really different kind of fire. I think he’s a distinguished public servant, a patriot, trying to do a hard job under, I would guess, the hardest circumstances of any of us that has ever gotten that job.”  The occasion was Institute for Education’s (IFE) 27th Season Kickoff  INFO Salon with West Wing Gatekeepers: Demystifying the Role of Chief of Staff  hosted by H.E. The Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium Dirk Wouters and IFE’s founder Kathy Kemper.  Kelly, of course, has found himself  in a maelstrom of controversy which began shortly before the event started by what most would consider the mishandling of the Rob Porter scandal, White House Staff Secretary to President Trump.

T.H. Josh Bolten

The evening was colorful in more ways than just the conversation. “You can recognize the ambassadors because they have a beautiful red ribbon and notice the people with the red, white and blue ribbons and decoration around their necks – these are the presidential innovation fellows, President Obama’s signature program,” Kemper explained.  The table decorations also caught our eyes…….Olympic theme.  Ms. Woo Sonae was in attendance representing the Embassy of South Korea. “Tables are full despite the Olympics,” noted Ambassador Wouters.

“Who in their processional lives have been a Chief of Staff,” he asked the guests. “One, two, three four, six, seven? The Chief of Staffs have a 24 hour a day job, seven days a week to do the job and serving the most powerful persons in the world in the White House and doing it with such high standards.  Tonight we have two golden standards and Andrea Mitchell will guide us.” “It could not be more timely,” added Kathy.

Kathy Kemper and The Ambassador of Belgium

Andrea Mitchell engaged the two former COS’s by asking the questions we would have asked.  “You know from your own experiences how complicated it can be. Not only are you the person on the front line of fire but the first person entering the oval office to tell both bad and good news.”  So she asked what was the best and worse advise they had given to their bosses.

“Best advice I ever gave President Bush or the best thing I think I did for his administration was when I came in as Chief of Staff in the early 2006, The President brought me in to help refresh the administration, give us a new sense of energy and purpose, and one of the things I did ended up having to fire a lot of people, which is never pleasant. They were good people, but I just thought they were not in the right role serving The President at that time. One of the pieces of advice I gave The President was that I thought we needed a new Treasury secretary, the then-incumbent was actually a good Treasury secretary who was nearing the end of his run. And I thought he was the wrong Treasury secretary for a financial crisis because he did not come from the world of finance, and … having spent five years at Goldman Sachs before I went to work for the president …. I had a pretty keen sense of the rhythm of financial crises. I knew that no president had ever gone a full eight years without a major financial crisis, so I correctly predicted that there would be a crisis, although I was completely wrong about what it was going to be but I don’t think you can give me credit for the prediction. What I do properly take credit for was telling the president that I think we need a financial markets [advisor].”

Josh Bolton, Andrea Mitchell and Denis McDonough

McDonough weighed in on the good, the bad and the ugly: “In the height of the fight to get trade promotion authority we were in a bad way with our Democratic colleagues. And we tried everything. There was a lot of machinations but the real question at the end of the day was something the Democrats really wanted, which was some worker assistance for people who lost their jobs because of the trade became decoupled from trade promotion authority. And for us to have any chance to get the authority to negotiate the trade deal, which we ultimately did, we needed to get that piece of action back on the trading table. And Democrats knew that that was their leverage, they were going to vote against it to kill the deal. I kept encouraging the president to try everything we could to get Democrats to do that.  The reason it was bad advice was because I believe the most underrated leader in Washington is Nancy Pelosi. She’ll tell you if she can get it and she’ll tell you if she cannot. I missed the signals that she was telling us that we weren’t gonna get this. So as a result, I pushed him way out there.”

T.H. Denis McDonough

Bolten on the relationship with da boss:  “I had a seven year relationship. I knew him. I knew how he operated and I knew how he wanted his staff and administration to be. I think that’s one of the elements of success as COS. One of the predictors of success is a knowledge, a comfort and good working relationship with the boss. It’s possible to be a great COS without having that though. All of us COS acknowledge James A. Baker the 3rd as the real gold standard of COS and he did not know his boss. Both Denis and I had huge respect for our Presidents that made the job easier.”

Denis: “On familiarity with The President, this can go one or two ways: Familiarity breeds contempt and there are times when one has a contemptuous relationship with The President because there has to be someone on The President’s team that says that’a bad idea or delivers bad news. I remember very clearly delivering bad news on October 9th – days of not working. The bad news always waited up for us, but your ability to have that kind of candid relationship does breed contention. It doesn’t matter how many times you walk into the oval office it takes you back.”

Attentive audience with John Roberts

On tweeting: “Twitters are extraordinarily powerful and you can not overestimate the impact on The President. You feel you are not being understood and along comes this tool that you can use in your language to your people – it’s extraordinarily powerful. We managed it through ports like everything else we did in the White House. I don’t see this tool going back in the box.”

Insert laughter: Andrea said when referring to President Trump:  “When he said my button is bigger than yours I almost fell off the couch.”