Whether Omarosa Manigault Newman should have been appointed to the senior-most ranks of the White House staff may be a fair question, but it really does not matter now. She was. She served. And she was fired. Then she wrote a gossipy book for a lot of money, is working 24/7 to promote it and has suckered the White House into a publicity-generating debate on what parts of the book are true and what parts are not.
For its part, the White House would have been better off dismissing Omarosa’s book with a curt and contemptuous “we do not comment on works of fiction.” (Note to the president and Sarah Sanders: Keep those words in mind next month when Bob Woodward’s book comes out.)
Much more worrisome than some of what Omarosa alleges about President Trump is what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said when he fired her. If Omarosa’s recording is accurate — and there is no reason to believe it is not — Mr. Kelly told her: ” the staff and everyone on the staff works for me, not the president.” Say What?
The White House staff works for the American people. In fact, senior aides take an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, not the president personally, and certainly not the chief of staff. As a practical matter, of course, everyone on the White House staff works for the president — at whose pleasure they all serve. They work for the American people by honestly advising the president and faithfully implementing the agenda the American people elected him to pursue. The notion that the White House staff works for its chief is preposterous.
I worked for all eight years in the Reagan White House, during which he had four chiefs of staff. Of those, three were highly successful because they understood that their role was to organize and manage a team to support the president and serve the nation. They never demanded personal loyalty or made it about themselves. We never felt that we were working for anyone other than the president and for the country. Ronald Reagan himself set the tone, by often saying that he did not view himself as having “become” president, but rather as being hired by the American people to do a job and being given temporary custody of an office that belonged to them.
James A. Baker III, who is widely credited with setting the modern-day gold standard for White House chiefs of staff, understood who was boss and dedicated himself to advancing the Reagan agenda on Capitol Hill in a way that yielded results exceeding everyone’s expectations.
Mr. Baker’s successor, the late Donald Regan, failed to understand that the president was the only star of the show. Imperious by nature, Mr. Regan demanded personal loyalty from the staff, relished in the perks of the office, rudely hung up on first lady Nancy Reagan, and was fired after the Tower Commission investigating the Iran-Contra affair correctly blamed him for “the chaos that descended upon the White House” after the scandal was discovered. (Full disclosure: Donald Regan tried to fire me from my position in the White House press office, but was overruled by President Reagan.)
Mr. Regan was replaced by former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., who immediately restored a sense of stability and integrity to the White House. While Mr. Baker brought with him to the White House several long-standing and very talented aides in whom he had full confidence, he and they understood they were there to serve President Ronald Reagan and advance his agenda, and put things back on track for the administration.
When Mr. Baker left, President Reagan replaced him with longtime aide and widely respected Washington operative Ken Duberstein, who knew the White House and Congress as well as anyone in town. Mr. Duberstein skillfully guided the Reagan Ship of State to shore safely and smoothly, and did so by rallying the troops (White House staff) to serve the Reagans and the country with their greatest efforts.
Messrs. Baker, Baker and Duberstein succeeded because they knew for whom they worked and they knew for whom the staff worked. They understood the notion of serving the people. Mr. Regan failed because he did not.
John Kelly has an incredibly distinguished record of service to our country, which few can match. It is worthy of the respect and appreciation of every American. But he seems to lack a fundamental understanding of what his role is as White House chief of staff, and as such, may not be serving the president well.
Inarguably, Donald Trump is not a “traditional” president and whether he needs a chief of staff is something only he can decide. But if he has one, it should be someone who understands for whom the staff works.
• Mark D. Weinberg, author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster), was special assistant to the president and director of public affairs in the Reagan White House.