The Department of Homeland Security has traditionally been a model of dysfunction. An amalgam of 22 different federal departments with wildly different missions, it has been a consistent thorn in the side of even the most well-intentioned administrators.
It has five key missions, none of which it has done well. It’s spent tens of billion on counterterrorism programs, yet has been unable to demonstrate any improvements in security. It has left hundreds of miles of the southern border unsecured. The department was not effectively administering or enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. It struggled to protect itself, much less federal and civilian networks, from cybersecurity threats. And it spent $170 billion by redefining natural disaster downward, rather than improving preparedness and increasing resilience.
But it took General John Kelly just six months to begin turning the woebegone department around, successfully working to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants on the border, deftly handling an aviation threat with the discovery that terrorists were manufacturing bombs disguised at laptops, enhancing security measures at airports, and successfully halting the march of the WannaCry ransomware attack.
Recognizing the incredible accomplishment, President Trump has now tapped General Kelly for a different mission: Professionalize the management of the White House.
On Friday President Trump chose Kelly, a through-and-through Bostonian who served 45 years in the Marines, as his next chief of staff. Prior to serving in the Trump administration Kelly was the commander of the U.S. Southern Command and a four-star general. He’s also a Gold Star father, who lost his youngest son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010.
“Those with less of a sense of service to the nation never understand it when men and women of character step forward to look danger and adversity straight in the eye, refusing to blink or give ground, even to their own deaths,” Kelly said in a Veterans Day speech in 2010.
Given everything Gen. Kelly has faced, whipping the White House into shape should be a walk in the park. CNN’s National Security Analyst, John Kirby, writes of his former colleague:
I worked with General Kelly on the staff of Leon Panetta, then-secretary of defense. Kelly, a three-star at the time, was Mr. Panetta’s senior military assistant. He was a marvel of organization and efficiency, of candid counsel and dogged persistence.
Here he was, a combat veteran, a man who had seen the hell of war and the pain of losing his own son to it … a man with, understandably, strong views about terrorism and extremist violence. And yet he did that job with all the flash and flair of a man stooping to sweep off his front porch.
To him, drama is a movie genre he can choose on Netflix — if he even watches movies much — not a way of life.
Kelly doesn’t suffer fools, and he sure as hell doesn’t suffer individualism, ego and anything less than 100% teamwork.
To be clear, President Trump doesn’t mind a bit of drama and chaos. Indeed, it’s how he ran his business and campaign to great effect. Whereas others are unnerved and disoriented by the swirl of seemingly incongruous action, Trump is energized and opportunistic.
“He’s spent his life creating and surrounding himself with chaos,” former Trump Organization Vice President Barbara Res told Politico, “so that he can be the one person who can emerge in charge. The winner. The guy on top. It’s a way of slaying his enemies.”
And although Gen. Kelly will no doubt instill discipline and order—which is definitely needed to unify and amplify the administration’s voice—he also has no problem remaining calm amidst the chaos of the political battle field. That duality will serve him, and President Trump well, as he seeks to get voter’s agenda back on track. After all, there is still much left to do – a full-court press for an infrastructure bill, sustained progress on comprehensive tax reform, continued progress against the regulatory state, and a strategy to expand trade on our terms. All of this can still be done and Gen. Kelly is just the man to shepherd these priorities over the finish line.