WASHINGTON – For a man with such small hands, President Donald Trump handles an awful lot of things.
As a businessman, he handled golf courses, casinos, hotels, bankruptcies and, by his own account, a number of unsuspecting women. When you’re a star, they let you do it.
Now he’s president and he handles, well, everything.
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“We have some interesting situations that we'll handle,” he reported at this week’s Cabinet meeting. “. We'll take care of them. We'll take care of them very well.”
Fox News’s John Roberts asked about the latest North Korea missile launch. “We'll handle North Korea,” Trump said. “We’re going to be able to handle North – there will be – it will be handled. We handle everything.”
Now the man who handles everything has a handler.
Retired four-star Gen. John F. Kelly, Trump’s new chief of staff, is by all accounts an ideal fit. He has the stature, the independence and the brass to tell the president to cut the nonsense. He has shown sensible skepticism about Trump’s proposed border wall, his firing of James B. Comey and more. Let’s wish him well.
But I fear Kelly – “General,” as Trump calls him – does not appreciate just how out of hand this president is, or how allergic he is to the sort of discipline Kelly aims to impose. Trump alone does the handling, and I’m not just talking about the awkward public touches he has had with everybody from Ivanka Trump to Angela Merkel. He has no capacity to be tamed, shamed or restrained.
Trump gave Kelly assurances that he would have full authority in the White House, which is essential. But he gave Kelly’s predecessor Reince Priebus the same assurances, and they were meaningless. As Preet Bharara – fired as U.S. attorney after Trump personally asked him to stay on – can tell you, Trump is not bound by his word.
The latest reminder of this comes from The Washington Post’s stunning report this week that the president himself dictated the misleading statement in July issued by his son Donald Trump Jr. about the younger Trump’s 2016 meeting with Russians who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president, aboard Air Force One, dictated the statement even though his aides were arguing for a full disclosure by his son to get in front of the Russia revelations – and even though emails and Donald Trump Jr.’s subsequent statements would quickly demolish the one the president dictated about Russian adoptions.
This should alarm Kelly, because it is a reminder that this president is fundamentally dishonest. This is why allies can’t deal with him, Congress can’t negotiate with him – and those who work for him can’t trust him.
Kelly’s professional life has been working within the chain of command. But Trump’s professional life has been all command and no chain. As owner and chief executive of a family company, he didn’t have public shareholders or an independent board of directors to review his commands. He ruled by whim, and his managers – family members and other loyalists – didn’t question his edicts.
This real-life experience for Trump wasn’t unlike his reality TV show, in which contestants – subordinates – stroked his ego. It’s also how he has run the White House so far. Recall his first full Cabinet meeting, at which the doomed Priebus thanked Trump “for the opportunity and blessing that you’ve given us,” while others dueled to be the most effusive in praising Trump.
No wonder Trump still thinks he’s on set at “The Apprentice.” “We'll see you in the board room,” Trump announced Monday morning, before heading to the Cabinet Room for a Cabinet meeting.
Now Kelly supposes he can give this president discipline. It’s desperately needed to stop the chaos. Even as Kelly was starting his new job, Trump was tweeting about the “fake news media,” threatening to “hurt the insurance companies” that participate in Obamacare and, apparently forgetting his promise to be the voice of the “forgotten men and women,” boasting that “Corporations have NEVER made as much money as they are making now.”
But how to restrain Trump? Even Vice President Pence, who has constitutional job security, has stopped trying. He actually told Fox News on Tuesday that “I'll always support whatever decisions that the president makes.”
I can’t dismiss out of hand the possibility that Kelly will be the first person ever to get a handle on Trump. But it’s the unlikeliest outcome. Hands down.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.