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Trump Searches For 3rd Chief Of Staff In Just Under 2 Years

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 2012, Donald Trump, who was then a private citizen, wrote a tweet mocking President Obama.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The tweet said, quote, "three chiefs of staff in less than three years of being president, part of the reason why Barack Obama can't manage to pass his agenda."

INSKEEP: His critics are missing no chance to repeat those words as President Trump prepares to choose his third chief of staff in less than two years.

MARTIN: The president is also on his third national security adviser...

INSKEEP: His second press secretary...

MARTIN: His second secretary of state, and he just nominated a second attorney general.

INSKEEP: How much does any of this really matter? Kathryn Dunn Tenpas is here. She's at the Brookings Institution, where she studies White House staffing. Thanks for coming by. Good morning.

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: First, is this an unusual amount of turnover? I mean, as Trump's tweet from years ago points out, chiefs of staff come and go.

TENPAS: It is an unusual level of turnover. The position of chief of staff was created under Harry Truman. And since then, 10 presidents have created that position and utilized it. Of those ten, only three have had turnover, and that turnover was not until the second year.

INSKEEP: Second term, you mean?

TENPAS: No, the second year of the first term.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK.

TENPAS: Right.

INSKEEP: Go on.

TENPAS: So President Trump being on his third chief of staff in less than two years is truly unprecedented.

INSKEEP: And how does that affect the workings of the White House - or more to the point of what the country cares about, presidential decisions?

TENPAS: Right. Well, I would argue that the position of chief of staff is the absolutely most important position in the executive branch. You might even go as far as to say that it's the most influential unelected position in our government.

INSKEEP: Why?

TENPAS: They make all the critical decisions. They make sure that the train's on time. They set the tone within the White House. They set the tone of decorum. They help the president advance his agenda, either working through Congress or through interest groups and various other entities. And they are just simply critical to the success of a White House.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering a thing that John Kelly tried to do early in his tenure as chief of staff - was limit the number of people who got in to see the president, which was not limiting his information in any way but trying to make sure that he was getting reasonable information from people with reasonable access and that people weren't going around the system.

TENPAS: Exactly. They're often referred to as the gatekeeper. And you might recall that in the beginning of the Clinton administration, it was a rocky start. And Clinton was characterized as sort of not being disciplined, and too many people had access to him. So after about 14 months or so, Mack McLarty exited, and Leon Panetta came in. And he sort of instilled a sense of discipline. And one of his chief roles in order to do that was to be the gatekeeper and to control the access to the president. I think in the case of President Trump, John Kelly tried to do that. But not only was he unsuccessful, the president kind of worked around him. And that basically - you know, it sort of defeats the purpose of having a chief of staff if you're going to work around him.

INSKEEP: The president has been fairly explicit about that, right? He wants to keep his own phone. He wants to have it in hand. He wants to call friends. He wants to get advice from many different places, which in theory sounds like a good idea, isn't it?

TENPAS: Well, not necessarily. As you might imagine, the president has vast responsibilities. His time is his most important resource. And so you really have to sort of be careful about how you allot that time and not let just anybody who wants the president's ear come in and talk to him. He has to keep on a schedule. He has to keep very disciplined in order to accomplish the many things that he has to accomplish.

INSKEEP: We hear about the top figures - the prominent figures coming and going. But isn't there a career White House staff of several hundred people? Some of them have been there for many, many years. Others are career government professionals who rotate in and out. And they're just there working the whole time, aren't they?

TENPAS: There are. But they tend to be at much lower levels in the terms of seniority. And so while they are there to keep the trains running on time to some extent and to make sure presidents sign the bills and the bill goes to Congress and all those formalities, they are not the ones making the day-to-day decisions. And so it's the president's closest aides, whom he confides in and whom he trusts, that he allows to have influence over his decisions. It's not the career people.

INSKEEP: Do you think that John Kelly in the end was effective in that role of chief of staff - of making the trains run on time? Whether you agree with the policies or not, did he do his job well?

TENPAS: I think he tried to at the beginning. I think the president undermined him. You know, in many ways, President Trump has the position of chief of staff, but the job description is nothing like it has been in prior administrations. So while John Kelly did the best he could - and early on, it seems as though he was firing people whom he deemed to be not sort of playing by the rules and things like that - but over time, the president undermined him and found ways around his chief of staff, which basically emasculated the position.

INSKEEP: Well, suppose the president were to make one of those many phone calls to you and say, OK, listen. I heard you on the radio. You sound like you're really smart. You know what you're doing about these White House staffing matters. What kind of chief of staff should I hire? What would you tell him?

TENPAS: Well, interestingly because it's almost 2019, the next focus of the White House is on the reelection campaign. And I've actually studied reelection campaigns and how presidents simultaneously meet the demands of governing and reelection. And what you find is actually there is a small amount of staff shuffling in senior positions where they bring in people with more political acumen - people who understand the presidential campaign environment. So I think he definitely needs somebody with a background in politics, especially presidential electoral politics. In addition to that, I think President Trump has to, you know, obtain the ability if he can to delegate authority to this individual and let the individual sort of be a gatekeeper. I think it would be in his best interests. I'm not sure if he personally has sort of the self-discipline to do it, but I absolutely think it would be in his best interests.

INSKEEP: Yeah, you're telling him to be a different type of person than he likes to be.

TENPAS: To some extent. But if you think - if you go back to President Clinton again and that example, it was a rocky start. President Clinton was all over the place. He brought in Leon Panetta. And he listened to Leon Panetta. And he let him do his work. And the remaining years - he won reelection, and the remaining years were much more successful, I would argue.

INSKEEP: Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, thanks so much. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.