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Why a new chief of staff wouldn’t change Trump’s White House

“I’m leaving, and I’m not coming back.”

For months, White House chief of staff John Kelly has often departed the West Wing with that pessimistic sign-off as he strides out the gate, according to colleagues. It’s a dramatic shift since he reluctantly accepted his job a year ago – when he told people around him that, driven by a sense of patriotism, “I’ll stay until the bitter end, whatever that is.”

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But now, with his one-year mark glimmering at the end of the tunnel – July 28 marks the anniversary of Trump’s tweet announcing Kelly’s appointment – and his colleagues anticipating his imminent departure, the question is what, if any, difference it will make once Kelly leaves for good and another chief takes his place.

For current White House officials, a new chief will mean a realignment of power centers in the White House. But in terms of the preparedness of the West Wing, as well as its ability to coordinate and roll out its signature policies, many people who have spent time working for or studying Trump no longer expect the personality or background of the next chief to have any noticeable effect on the presidency.

“They’re 0 for 2,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “They had two chiefs who were ineffective, and a White House that still has no idea how to govern.”

Trump so far has tried out two chiefs with vastly different backgrounds, both of whom ultimately seemed incapable of putting a check on him. Kelly, a four-star Marine general, managed to formalize some processes and structure in the White House. But Trump succeeded in eventually eroding those processes – along with Kelly’s will.

Trump’s first chief, Reince Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman with connections on the Hill, was seen as someone undermined from Day One by a structure that awarded other staffers and family members greater influence over Trump than Priebus wielded.

It’s not entirely clear when Kelly will actually depart – his “I’m never coming back” schtick has earned him a reputation, internally, as a general who cried wolf. On Friday, Trump said of Kelly: “I like him and I respect him.” When asked if Kelly will be leaving, the president responded, “That I don’t know” – even as Trump has been discussing the job with potential successors like Mulvaney.

It’s also not clear what would come next. “The lesson of Priebus and Kelly is that the chief should be more empowered, not less, and most importantly tell the president what he does not want to hear,” Whipple added.

That, however, is not how anyone in Trump’s circle expects things to play out. Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers, budget chief Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are all names being floated as potential future chiefs, according to Republicans close to the White House. But Kelly’s successor is not expected to play a first-among-equals role, according to former administration officials.

Instead, these people said, the next chief is more likely to be fighting for Trump’s ear alongside a handful of top advisers, including top economic adviser Larry Kudlow and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who will continue reporting to Trump directly.

HHS headquarters is pictured. | POLITICO

More staff churn is also seen as a likely boost for Trump’s family members in the administration, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the two advisers the president turns to more often when he feels that other staffers are betraying him or letting him down.

The couple traveled Friday afternoon with the president to his golf resort in Bedminster, where he is expected to review potential options for Kelly’s successor as well as a replacement on the Supreme Court for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

For the past few months, Ivanka Trump and Kushner have tried to avoid meddling in staffing decisions. But Ayers is widely seen as their ally – he has often publicly defended them in meetings and argued that they deserve to have prominent and substantive roles in the administration.

Then there’s the Shine factor. Trump, whose focus and frustration has always been the optics and pageantry of his presidency, is bringing in former Fox News executive Bill Shine as his communications director, White House officials said. But Shine, Republicans close to the White House said, “is going to be paramount to the chief of staff.”

Shine’s name has not been formally announced yet by the White House. But last week, he was on the White House campus to meet with the president, and then spoke to the press and communications team in the Roosevelt Room, introducing himself and outlining his philosophy of the job, according to a meeting attendee.

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty

But Former administration officials describe only one trajectory for anyone who works for this president: down. Even for someone like Shine, a former right-hand man to the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who is considered skilled in managing up, that’s not expected to change.

“It does not matter who is chief of staff, Trump is not going to change,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, who has since become a critic of his former boss. “He will continue to dominate the person in that role, he will eventually wear that person out. New management is like fresh meat to Trump, he loves eating them up early on in the process. He likes the process of another person submitting to his every word and will.”

The idea that a new chief won’t dramatically reinvent the presidency is not unique to Trump’s White House. President Barack Obama cycled through five chiefs of staff during eight years of his presidency. Each of them marked different priorities of the administration at that time. But “for the most part, the organization of the White House is more a reflection of the boss than of the chief of staff,” said John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who also served as the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “You’re talking about the margins here.”

“I don’t think having Mulvaney come in is going to make a whiff’s bit of difference,” he added. “Is he going to give him his phone? That’s the big test. If he says, ‘I’m done tweeting, Mick has my phone,’ then things will be different. If he doesn’t, then nothing’s going to change.”

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