John Kelly
Credit: Jim Greenhill/Flickr

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s concerns about sending Ivanka Trump to South Korea are sound. As one unnamed administration official put it, “This isn’t like going to Italy. The stakes are far higher and more complex.” With a nuclear showdown looming and South and North Korea engaged in an unusual show of unity for the duration of the Winter Olympics, the peninsula is a minefield for even experienced diplomats and policy hands. Ivanka doesn’t have the right experience for the job, and there are unacceptable risks to putting her in a position where her words and actions could have far-ranging and even catastrophic consequences.

John Kelly was reportedly persuaded to shelve his objections on the theory that he had no way of winning a battle that would pit him against the president’s daughter. That was probably astute, as least in its predictive value for any likely outcome. Of course, if he was concerned enough about it, he could have made a stand and then resigned in protest if things didn’t go his way.

What Kelly did instead is give himself the worst of both worlds. He didn’t try to stop the trip and protect our national security, but he still allowed his concerns to leak out to the press where the president can now read about them. The result is that there are stories about “tensions” in the White House. CNN writes “the blurred line between staffer and daughter has long irked Kelly” and that “Kelly has grown increasingly frustrated with Ivanka Trump.” Kelly has supposedly complained in private about Ivanka “playing government” as if she was playing House.

This is self-defeating. If Kelly knows enough not to get in between the president and his daughter about the trip to South Korea, then he should know enough not to allow his displeasure with the trip become a major story. He should be at pains to prevent his aides and associates from broadcasting his frustration and displeasure with Ivanka and her role in the White House. If he feels that way, he should tell the president privately and resign if he can’t find some kind of satisfactory solution.

The way this appears, it seems like Kelly doesn’t have what it takes to confront the president in person, so he resorts to sending messages to him through the press. Either that, or he’s just trying to cover his ass in case anything goes wrong. This strikes me as dysfunctional and cowardly either way.

And it weakens him because it certainly does not avoid the problem he sought to avoid, which is getting into a battle we can never win. If I were Trump, I’d probably fire him over this incident. He’d be justified in doing so. If Kelly wants to object to something Ivanka proposes, that should be done in private. Trashing the president’s daughter in the press is not something that should be tolerated in a chief of staff, and that is true whether the daughter is Malia, Sasha, or Ivanka. In most cases, Kelly should salute and get with the plan when he loses policy and strategy debates, but he can also resign if he feels strongly enough about it. By doing neither of these things, Kelly is basically begging to get canned.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at