Why John Kelly may be destined to repeat history

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: As Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly may be limited in the impact he can have
  • Like Alexander Haig, who served under Richard Nixon, he will struggle to bring calm to a chaotic White House

Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." He's also the co-host of the "Politics & Polls" podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN) President Donald Trump, who is always looking for a quick fix, is hoping that John Kelly, his new chief of staff, will be the magic bullet.

But it won't work. Kelly will find himself extremely frustrated, and there will be limits to the kind of "order" he will achieve. He is working for a president who will continue to act in the same destructive manner. Unless there is a wholesale purge, Trump will still be surrounded by some calculating and strong-headed figures like Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sebastian Gorka, Jared Kushner and Anthony Scaramucci, who will not cede ground very easily.
Kelly also faces a political environment that is even more difficult than before. Republicans on Capitol Hill are angry and frustrated, while special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation that could prove damaging. The trifecta of the Russian sanctions legislation, the defeat of health care and the backlash against the idea of removing Jeff Sessions as attorney general suggests the Republican firewall on Capitol Hill is starting to weaken.
    Then there is everything else that can happen in an ordinary week of the Trump presidency.
    Although there are many examples where a new chief of staff brings good returns for the White House -- Howard Baker for Ronald Reagan in 1987, Leon Panetta for Bill Clinton in 1994 and Josh Bolten for George W. Bush in 2006 -- this is not likely to be one of them. The best comparison might be Gen. Alexander Haig, who became chief of staff for an embattled Richard Nixon in 1973.
    Right in the middle of the Watergate investigation, Nixon turned to Haig when H.R. Haldeman resigned on August 30, 1973. The appeal was clear. The 47-year-old career military officer had worked as a senior military adviser to national security adviser Henry Kissinger and as Army vice chief of staff. Haig brought the kind of "can-do" attitude toward problems that the President hoped would help him.
    "He'll be superb in the new job. He'll get decisions made, orders implemented and papers flowing into the President's office," predicted President Lyndon Johnson's aide Joseph Califano, "He'll work 20 hours a day, and he knows how to get along with people." Haig, who had shown his scrappy character by earning enough money to pay for college by delivering newspapers and working in a department store after his father died when he was only 10 years old, was a compelling figure with strong convictions and an unyielding drive.
    The problem for Haig -- and Kelly might want to take note -- was that there was little he could do to turn around the dire situation he inherited. By the time he was hired, Nixon was deep into battle mode, combating the multiple investigations that were taking place into his administration. The investigators were already exposing a deeply troubled president who had abused executive power and acted in vindictive ways toward his perceived adversaries. Nixon had allowed many people to work for his administration who didn't have a strong ethical compass and who had been willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve success. And, as the "smoking gun tape" recording would reveal, Nixon had been willing to obstruct justice in 1972.
    There was nothing Haig could do to make all this go away. Indeed, Haig, though not without a spine, became part of the problem. He was the person who delivered the instructions to acting Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.
    As a loyal foot soldier, he fueled some of Nixon's worst behavior. After President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon in September 1974, there were many unproven accusations that Haig, still serving as the chief of staff, had been part of some sort of corrupt deal. Haig, of course, denied the charges.
    Some of Haig's biggest supporters have argued he was essentially running the White House as everything fell apart in the final months. "He was the president toward the end," argued US Attorney General William Saxbe. Some called him the "37½ president."
    Woodward and Bernstein would credit Haig for helping to convince Nixon that he needed to seriously consider resignation and for taking care of Nixon as he broke down mentally, a period when historian Joshua Zeitz reminds us that Nixon "drank heavily, slept little and struck many aides as increasingly divorced from reality."
    But by that point there was nothing Haig could do to salvage a broken White House.
    Haig did not bring with him a solid feel for the ways and means of Capitol Hill, a problem Kelly will face as well. While he had a decent relationship with several members of Congress, he didn't have particularly strong connections or experiences working on the Hill. As the President's standing continued to erode on Capitol Hill with Democrats and gradually Republicans, Haig was not able to do much to reverse the situation. The frustration and concern with Nixon continued to mount as the investigation intensified, and Haig didn't have much social or political capital with members of Congress to assuage their concerns.
    Haig's reputation would be forever tarnished during his brief stint as secretary of state for Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1982. Most famously, he told reporters after the assassination attempt on President Reagan, "I am in control here," which gave the impression that he was ignoring the succession of power and taking over the government. Haig resigned in June 1982 over disputes about the direction of foreign policy. (He died in 2010, having spent several decades away from politics.)
    Kelly will face some of the same problems as Haig. Like Nixon, there is little chance that Trump will change in any fundamental way, and he will continue to engage in the kind of behavior that further erodes his standing. The information that keeps coming out about how Trump is handling the investigation into Russia and mishandling key public policy decisions will not vanish, just like Scaramucci's tweets.
    At this point, a key difference is that we know Haig was working for a president who was clearly guilty of wrongdoing, while the investigation has only just begun into Trump and his campaign. But if Mueller or Congress produce damaging revelations, or if Trump moves forward with decisions that provide evidence he is obstructing the investigation, Kelly will be hamstrung.
    With each of Trump's tweets and bombastic rally statements, Kelly will discover it is increasingly difficult to "reset" the situation. Since he is a person who, by vocation, believes in the chain of command, he probably won't be willing to stand up to his superior, the person with whom the problem lies. As Jonathan Stevenson reminds us in The New York Times, the generals who were originally supposed to tame this renegade president -- Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster -- have not had much luck fulfilling these expectations. This is why at the very time of his announcing this shake-up, Trump is continuing to tweet threats against his own party and North Korea. It seems clear the generals have not really restrained him.
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    Although there is some evidence Kelly has gotten along well with Congress in previous jobs, these relationships will be tested in new ways as his job becomes to lean on members in moments that can quickly become tense.
    He also has to deal with partisan rather than military warfare, something he has found difficult. "What I never saw on the military side," he told CNN, "was the level of toxic kind of politics that are associated with what I do now." Kelly, who has already expressed his surprise with the "toxic" situation in Washington, won't bring with him any kind of expert understanding of Congress or deep-rooted relationships with legislators that will calm the current situation.
    With Haig, Nixon learned military acumen doesn't always mean much in Washington warfare -- especially when the head of the political army refuses to change a failed strategy. If things continue to go poorly, Kelly might find Haig's experience is even more apt than he expected.