Much Ado About A Chief of Staff
If you thought the Beltway drama this week reached its apex during the Oval Office scuffle between President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and the two top Democrats in Congress – Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – think again.
Washington was abuzz with speculation about who President Trump will appoint as his next White House chief of staff. For months, reporters and political pundits have speculated the current chief of staff, four-star Marine General John Kelly, would resign. Last week those reports surfaced again and the White House confirmed this week that Kelly will depart in January.
Current-Pence Chief of Staff Nick Ayers reportedly was the favorite to take over from Kelly, but by Monday it became clear he would not. (If he had taken the job, Ayers, who turned only 36 in August, actually would not have been the youngest White House chief of staff. James Jones, who served President Lyndon Baines Johnson during his last 10 months in office, wasn’t even 30 when he took over the post.)
President Trump is now looking furiously for someone to lead his White House operations. The list of individuals who have taken themselves out of the running is growing. Besides Ayers, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) announced live on CNN he didn’t want the post. Current U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reportedly doesn’t want the job. Neither does Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Americans watching the frenzy can be forgiven for thinking that the position of chief of staff always has been a critical part of the White House chain of command. While chiefs of staff and aides de camp have played important roles in the military for much of history, in politics, it’s actually a relatively new position with no legal requirements governing who may fill the role or what the job entails. Other than the vice president, the White House chief of staff is the only cabinet-level official that does not require Senate confirmation.
The inspiration for the position, however, might be David Humphreys, who was appointed then-General George Washington’s aide-de-camp in June 1780. Humphreys remained close to Washington after the Revolutionary War – he lived at Mount Vernon during the 1780s, acting as Washington’s private secretary. Humphreys accompanied his boss to New York City when Washington was inaugurated the first President of the United States and, after that, acted as a speechwriter. Later, he became minister to Portugal and then minister to Spain.
Most of the early presidents had very few staffers and they paid the personnel they did have out of their own pockets. That practice did not end until 1857 when Congress created a White House position with the title of private secretary of the White House. Accordingly, most of the early presidential aides were relatives of the commander in chief, who worked cheap. (One might therefore argue that President Trump’s appointment of his daughter and son-in-law to senior White House posts is actually a throwback to early American politics.)
Although Congress created the private secretary position in the mid-1800s, it still took almost another century for the position of White House chief of staff to come into being.
John Steelman, who was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s director of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, served as President Harry Truman’s top aide from 1946 until he left office, and is considered the first chief of staff even though he did not bear that title. Instead, Steelman was simply referred to as the “assistant to the president,” a classification that is now given to all of a president’s top aides. It was President Dwight Eisenhower, whose political career, like Washington’s, was borne out of decades of military service, who first used the term chief of staff as the title for his top aide.
Even though the position became increasing necessary due to a rapidly expanding executive branch, the position of chief of staff wasn’t always part of the White House framework even after the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. President John F. Kennedy filled the position, but LBJ actually didn’t have a chief of staff for his first 14 months in office.
Around the globe, few countries use this model and in the ones that have, the adoption generally is even more recent than it was in the United States. The Canadian prime minister has a chief of staff, but only since 1987. Before then, the prime minister’s principal secretary was the top post in the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
The British prime minister has a chief of staff, but that post only has been active since former Prime Minister Tony Blair created it in 1997. In London, the chief of staff is responsible for leading and coordinating operations at Number 10 Downing Street. The presidents of Brazil and Australia and the prime minister of Pakistan are two of the few other world leaders that have chiefs of staff.
In other countries, presidents and prime ministers’ top aides simply go by another title. In China, the president has one secretary-general, a political appointee who supervises all staff. There also are two deputy secretaries-general who oversee administrative matters. Alexis Kohler, general secretary for French President Emmanuel Macron, is often informally referred to as the chief of staff. Helge Braun, minister of the German Chancellery, is Angela Merkel’s top aide and also is sometimes referred to as chief of staff, but this is not an official title.
While the post finds its origins in the military – Major General Henry Halleck was one of the U.S. Army’s first chiefs of staff, serving under the Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, and, today, the Army chief of staff is a Senate confirmed position – General Kelley aside, today most chiefs of staff come from civilian life. In fact, according to Pew Research Center, 19 of the 32 individuals who have held the role previously held other positions in the White House. Eight previously held elected office and six came from the cabinet. Only three served in the military.
And while John Steelman served President Truman for almost eight years, today chiefs of staff generally only serve for a fraction of that amount of time. The average tenure of a White House chief of staff is only 18 months.
President Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, made it exactly that long. So will John Kelly – if he makes it through this month.