What an Effective Chief of Staff Does, and Why It Matters

By James Lopez Published on December 18, 2018

Early this month, President Trump announced that John Kelly, his chief of staff, would leave by the end of the year. On December 14th, Trump Tweeted that Mick Mulvaney would fill that role temporarily as acting chief of staff.

Colby Itkowitz argues, in a Washington Post article titled, “Any chief of staff for President Trump is set up to fail,” that one of a chief’s key jobs is telling the president things he does not want to hear. Anything less is failure. Itkowitz is right. A primary duty of the chief is to make sure the president’s feet are well grounded in reality. This begins with speaking things the president may rather not hear. Sometimes it extends to talking a president out of disastrous ideas and plans.

Let’s take a brief look at some chiefs of staff who told presidents things they did not want to hear.

H.R. Haldeman

During Richard Nixon’s presidency, classified documents were leaked to the press. The New York Times went on to release the Pentagon Papers. Nixon was furious over the leaks, and numerous times gave orders for a break-in at the Brookings Institution to remove any classified documents that might be housed there. H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, wisely held back those orders.

Chiefs can either make or break a presidency.

Even before the idea to break into Brookings sprung, Nixon had ordered his chief to make every State Department employee take a polygraph test. Nixon was convinced that someone from State was responsible for the leaks. The chief thought this not only untenable but disastrous, and he told Nixon exactly this. None of these orders were carried out.

So why didn’t the chief prevent Watergate? It’s likely that the plans to break in to Democratic National Committee headquarters were kept hidden from him.

A White House aide who worked closely with Haldeman argued that had he known about the plan, he would have “driven a spike into” it.

Chiefs can either make or break a presidency.

Donald Rumsfeld

After Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn as president. Ford picked Donald Rumsfeld to be his chief of staff. On one occasion, Rumsfeld convinced Ford not to attend a friend’s birthday celebration; he had learned troubling information about the host of the party. Surely enough, the host, a lobbyist, ended up being charged on multiple counts for federal crimes. Who knows what would have happened had Ford attended the party?

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The lack of a strong chief of staff can have notable effects as well. Weeks before Rumsfeld was appointed as chief, Ford pardoned Nixon. Though admittedly it’s beyond knowing, from the way he operated, it seems very likely that Rumsfeld would have held Ford back from giving Nixon that pardon. The decision very likely cost Ford his chance at election to a first full term in 1976.

Rahm Emanuel

Barack Obama listened well to Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. Emanuel played a major role in the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. He cut deals with the powerful interest groups that had destroyed Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care plan in 1993. He met daily with members of Congress to push the health care plan. And as Chris Whipple points out, he allowed Congress to “participate in the writing of the bill.”

Because Obama allowed Emanuel to exercise his powers and be his mouthpiece with Congress, he proved effective.

The Chief’s Job

The chief of staff’s job is to make sure the president is well connected with reality. An effective chief knows his way around Capitol Hill, can work well with Congress, understands how to govern, and readily executes the president’s agenda — except when his role is to prevent mistaken agendas. The chief has to bring coordination, accountability and a strong character to the White House. Otherwise, the inevitable consequence will be thorough dysfunction. Such was the case in Carter’s administration before a chief of staff was brought in.

When a chief’s position in the White House is structured properly, the president can work effectively.

A chief must be a gatekeeper, for the most important thing a president has is time, and never has enough of it. The president cannot deal personally with everything going on in the White House. That’s the chief’s job.

When a chief’s position in the White House is structured properly, and the chief understands the importance of experience and power — as James A. Baker III did under Reagan — the president can work effectively. When a chief is straightforward with the president and puts the presidential interests above all else, like Sherman Adams under Eisenhower and Leon E. Panetta and Erskine Bowles under Clinton, the White House also functions effectively.

A president must be willing to give his chief the power to speak for him. He must be humble enough to acknowledge the importance of the chief’s job, and let him do his work so the president can succeed.

What Trump Needs

Thus, if President Trump wants an effective chief of staff, he must be willing to allow his chief to be both his mouthpiece and his gatekeeper. The chief must be the president’s top adviser. Meaning, President Trump must not permit competing power centers to arise in the White House. In short: President Trump must choose a chief who is capable of handling a chief’s authority, and fully exercising a chief’s roles and responsibility. And then Trump must let him do his job.


James Lopez is currently a graduate student in government at Johns Hopkins University. He is interested in early American history, particularly the Founding Fathers’ political philosophies and how these shaped American political institutions.

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