Here’s what being “chief of staff” means in the military

Even though I was enjoying the beauty of Wheeling, West Virginia over this past weekend, I was still paying attention to the news cycle. And let me tell you, some great scenery for running up here, and fantastic opportunity to ponder current events as I was running.

I want to take the time to discuss with y’all the most recent personnel change in the White House. Yes, I have listened to all the political pundits but they fail to envision this personnel change from the eyes of a military veteran.

What does the title chief of staff mean in the military? With the announcement late Friday that retired Marine General John Kelly is the new White House chief of staff it’s important that we all, including President Trump, understand what that means.

I had the honor of holding two critical staff positions in my 22-year military career. One was as a brigade/regimental operations officer, the other as a battalion executive officer.

In the military at the company, battalion, and brigade/regimental levels we have executive officers (XOs). They’re basically the second in command of the unit. However, at the division and higher levels, you have a chief of staff.

The most critical aspect of being an executive officer or chief of staff is that you “run” the staff and ensure the commander’s guidance is implemented. Normally, the only person who can have direct access to the commander is the operations officer, the person designated as the S3 or G3. But, I can tell ya that even as the brigade S3 for Colonel Denny R. Lewis at Ft. Bragg, I never just busted up into his office, unless called upon, but I always made the Brigade XO, LTC Charlie Powers, aware of my comings and goings.

And there was NEVER a time that I didn’t share my conversations with COL Lewis with LTC Powers…just so y’all know, I was a major at the time. Furthermore, every morning the three of us would have what was called “Stand To” with COL Lewis before we conducted PT in order to synchronize the days activities.

The key was that I understood LTC Powers was the “XO” and that success meant ensuring he coordinated the actions of our staff. And let me tell you, if you wanted to see LTC Powers go nuts, just let him find out you went in with COL Lewis without his knowledge. As we say in the military, “surprises are for birthdays.”

As a battalion executive officer I was responsible for coordinating the staff, and yes, to be in command when the battalion commander was not available. That meant I had to be cognizant of the staff functions and our operating systems. Before we had a command and staff meeting I would conduct a pre-brief with the staff because we were not going to have any embarrassing moments. The only individuals who had carte blanche to have an audience with the commander were subordinate commanders. But just as when I was a brigade S3, the smart commanders would always check in with you before going to see the “Ol’ Man.” The reason is simple: subordinate commanders always knew that the XO or chief of staff had the commander’s ear, trust, and confidence. I can tell you there were plenty of times when COL Lewis spoke to me in confidence about some of the battalion commanders.

This is the type of background and experiences that General Kelly has had, and I suspect will guide his being a White House chief of staff. It’s incumbent that President Trump understands General Kelly will be disciplined and for the staff to comprehend that they don’t get to just run into the president…without his knowing, and perhaps, without his permission.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. Scaramucci gets that. Mr. Scaramucci is what we refer to as the S6 or G6, communications officer, he falls under the executive officer or chief of staff. And this also goes for the president’s children and son-in-law. I don’t believe General Kelly will be carving out exceptions, nor will want to have the president do so, as that will have an adverse effect on staff synchronization.

But, most importantly, President Trump has to learn that his actions must be coordinated with the chief of staff. I could almost see General Kelly saying to the president, “Sir, you are the president, but hear me clearly, when you want to hit the head, you clear it with me.” It’s just that level of coordination that will be required. I sincerely suspect General Kelly will not be a fond and adoring lover of President Trump’s wanton mental ramblings known as his tweets. If there is to be discipline in this White House, it must start with the president. This is something I surmise General Kelly will make quite — sorry, HAS made quite clear, because I don’t think he would have accepted this position otherwise.

Also, General Kelly’s former cabinet peers must realize they should check azimuths with him before going “cleared hot” into the Oval Office. Yes, cabinet members, like subordinate commanders, have that right, but the smart cabinet member won’t abuse it, and will check in with the chief.

What will I be looking for? First, a reduction in the tweeting; second a more focused staff that is on message; third, the reduction of all “leaks,” and fourth, a more disciplined and functional White House. There are some who would say we cannot have a controlling former military person as a White House chief of staff. I would say this is exactly what this White House needs. And if General Kelly isn’t empowered, well, the worst thing would be for him to resign. And in closing, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner may want to understand something: they lose when bumping heads with a four-star Marine general….unless Daddy forgets he’s president, and undermines his new chief of staff.

If that happens, General Kelly will walk.

[Learn more about Allen West’s vision for this nation in his book Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin’s Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom]

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