Why have a chief of staff at all?

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On the roster: Why have a chief of staff at all? - Shutdown fears worsen - Russian agent cuts deal with feds - Brexit bungle rolls on - An anonymoose culprit


Like a lot of Republicans of his day, John Nicolay was a German from Cincinnati. 

What set him apart, aside from his keen intellect, taciturnity and gifts as a writer, was his ferocious loyalty. 

Nicolay moved to Illinois where he became a newspaperman and eventually threw in with the new Republican Party. That’s when he met Abraham Lincoln just as the one-term congressman was beginning his rise. Nicolay became Lincoln’s devoted disciple and eventually his personal secretary. 

Throughout the 1860 election, Nicolay, then 28, was what we now call a “body man” — the young person who “staffs” (God forgive us for the abuse of our beautiful language in this city) the candidate or official. He’s got the schedule, makes sure the boss gets a snack/water/potty break/hypoallergenic neck pillow when he needs one and, most importantly, protects and spares the boss from friends, admirers, favor seekers and the rest of the remoras who swim in the great waters of politics. 

But he was more than that. He functioned as a demi chief of staff, making sure meetings were run according to Hoyle and blocking out Lincoln’s schedule, thereby helping decide Lincoln’s priorities. 

Helping Nicolay was John Hay, a child of privilege from Springfield whose influential uncle kept his law office in the same building as Lincoln. Just 22, Hay came aboard the campaign after Lincoln’s surprise victory at the Republican convention in Chicago. 

Hay was in charge of Lincoln’s correspondence. Before you consider it drudgery, though, remember how much the world relied on letters in those days. Everything from the intensely personal to the weightiest matters of state came and went through the mail. Hay not only needed to understand Lincoln well, he had to sound like him when need be. 

He functioned like a demi-demi chief of staff, writing as he did with the authority of Lincoln himself. 

When Lincoln went to Washington, Nicolay and Hay went with him. They were his first hires and shared a shabby room in the White House, a space necessary to accommodate the demands of Lincoln’s work schedule. When the boss is on duty for 16 hours a day, seven days a week and never takes a vacation, going home isn’t really an option. 

There wasn’t enough money in the White House budget for two secretaries so they got Hay a gig at the Interior Department where Secretary Caleb Smith obligingly had him placed on permanent loan to the White House. 

Lincoln was known to appear in their room before they woke to discuss the latest dispatches from the front. They travelled with him. They ate with him. They dealt with the manias and machinations of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. They became, in short, an extension of the president himself.

Lincoln adored them and treated them as sons, especially Hay, who was a great comfort to Lincoln during his shattering grief following the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, from typhus in 1862. And while Hay had been a later convert to Lincoln adoration than Nicolay, he was no less ardent in his reverence or devotion to the great man.

“I have to a great extent stopped questioning where I don't agree with him. Content with trusting to his instinct of the necessities of the time and the wants of the people,” Hay wrote to a friend about Lincoln’s risky gambit of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. “I hardly ever speak of him to others than you because people generally would say ‘Yes! Of course: That's how he gets his daily bread!’ I believe he will fill a bigger place in history than he even dreams of himself.”

The position of chief of staff grew out of presidents’ personal secretaries. 

Starting in the middle of the last century, presidents wanted a more public, official role for the job — i.e. being the top cop of the West Wing. Tell Secretary So-and-so to resign. Call a cabinet meeting. Tell the Vice President’s office to knock it off. Get the first lady’s office to hold off until after the election. Etc.

In part, the new title, which originated under Harry Truman, was a reflection of the changing meaning of the word “secretary” to mean what Joan and the gals on “Mad Men” did for a job.

No matter what we call it, though, the job remains the same one that Nicolay and Hay did for Lincoln: executor of executive privileges, protector and, most importantly, secret keeper. But that, of course, relies on having something like the mutual trust and esteem they had. 

The word “secretary” comes from the same place as “secret.” It is supposed to mean one two whom personal, secret and sensitive can be entrusted. A secretary is a keeper of secrets. 

So what happens when a president really trusts no one outside of his own family? What if a president does not allow anyone to act with his imprimatur? What if a president seeks advice from hundreds of friends and acquaintances at all hours of the day and night by phone? What if a president shuns the protective restrictions a secret keeper must deploy to keep the grasping and ambitious away from the boss? What if the president is pro-remora?

The world seems to be waiting for President Trump to find his own Nicolay and Hay and are addressing the current search for a replacement for the doomed John Kelly as chief of staff. But that’s not going to happen. There is no one who can command or deliver that kind of devotion and trust with this president. 

So maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Why have a chief of staff at all? The post is only useful to a president who will treat such a person with an empowering respect and deference. That’s not going to happen. 

Trump can use his personal secretary to communicate with cabinet officials or, as is his wont, communicate directly. Given the ignominy visited on Reince Priebus and Kelly what serious person would want the job? And given how brutally taxing the coming months stand to be, what sane person would take it?

Unless the president picks his own daughter or another member of his family it’s hard to imagine anyone who will command his trust and respect to a sufficient degree. Why not just pass?

“The extravagant surmises of a distempered jealousy can never be dignified with that character.” – Alexander HamiltonFederalist No. 59

History: “[On this day in 1901] The first Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden, in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The ceremony came on the fifth anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and other high explosives. In his will, Nobel directed that the bulk of his vast fortune be placed in a fund in which the interest would be ‘annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.’ Although Nobel offered no public reason for his creation of the prizes, it is widely believed that he did so out of moral regret over the increasingly lethal uses of his inventions in war. … Today, the Nobel Prizes are regarded as the most prestigious awards in the world in their various fields. Notable winners have included Marie Curie, Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Winston ChurchillErnest Hemingway, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. … The Nobel Prizes are still presented annually on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.”

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Trump job performance 
Average approval:
 41.4 percent
Average disapproval: 52.2 percent
Net Score: -10.8 points
Change from one week ago: up 2.4 points 
[Average includes: NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve - 49% disapprove; IBD: 39% approve - 55% disapprove; Grinnell/Selzer: 44% approve - 47% disapprove; Gallup: 40% approve - 56% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 41% approve - 54% disapprove.]

Politico: “Donald Trump’s meeting Tuesday with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may go a long way toward determining whether the government enters a partial shutdown before Christmas. But as Democrats seriously re-engage with Trump for the first time in nearly a year, their broad distrust of the president has expectations for a deal at rock bottom. … The House and Senate Democratic leaders have been here before. Multiple times over the past two years they thought they'd cut a deal with Trump only to see him swiftly trash ‘Chuck and Nancy’ and demand hefty conservative concessions. Now Trump is threatening to shut down a large swath of the federal government if he doesn’t get billions in funding for his border wall. But Democrats say they have no reason to think talks this week will end differently than they have in the past, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen House and Senate Democrats. And the Democratic leaders — constrained by an aggressive left flank in the party — are in no mood to even try to strike a sweeping immigration deal like in past negotiations.”

Trump backtracks, wants to boost defense budget to $750 billion - Politico: “President Donald Trump has told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020, in a reversal from his pledge to trim defense spending, two people familiar with the budget negotiations have told POLITICO. The $750 billion figure emerged from a meeting Tuesday at the White House among Trump, Mattis and the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, both people said. … That would dwarf the $733 billion budget proposal Mattis and other top military leaders have been fighting to preserve and would represent a stunning about-face for a president who recently called the fiscal 2019 top line of $716 billion for defense spending ‘crazy.’ In October, Trump said the defense figure for 2020 would be $700 billion, a roughly 5 percent cut in line with decreases planned for other agencies.”

USA Today: “Maria Butina, a Russian national charged with conspiracy and acting as the agent of a foreign government, joined prosecutors Monday in asking a judge to schedule a hearing for her to change her plea. Butina has pleaded innocent so far in the case in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She has been jailed since July, largely in solitary confinement. But now lawyers for both sides are asking for a plea hearing Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. ‘The parties have resolved this matter,’ the two-page filing said. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan appointed public defender A.J. Kramer as an advisory counsel to Butina without further explanation. The move came after Chutkan held a phone conference with Butina's defense lawyers, Robert Driscoll and Alfred Carry, and assistant U.S. attorneys Erik Kenreson and Thomas Saunders. Chutkan earlier placed a gag order on both the federal prosecutors and the defense team that prevents them from speaking publicly about the case. … The Russian Embassy has called repeatedly for her release, most recently on Thursday.”

Cohen opened door for to Trump family business dealings - NYT: “When federal prosecutors recommended a substantial prison term for President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, they linked Mr. Trump to the crimes Mr. Cohen had committed in connection with the 2016 presidential campaign. What the prosecutors did not say in Mr. Cohen’s sentencing memorandum filed on Friday, however, is that they have continued to scrutinize what other executives in the president’s family business may have known about those crimes, which involved hush-money payments to two women who had said they had affairs with Mr. Trump. After Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to breaking campaign finance laws and other crimes — he will be sentenced on Wednesday — the federal prosecutors in Manhattan shifted their attention to what role, if any, Trump Organization executives played in the campaign finance violations, according to people briefed on the matter. Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s self-described fixer, has provided assistance in that inquiry, which is separate from the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.”

During the 2016 campaign Russians interacted with 14 Trump associates - WaPo: “The Russian ambassador. A deputy prime minister. A pop star, a weightlifter, a lawyer, a Soviet army veteran with alleged intelligence ties. Again and again and again, over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency, Russian citizens made contact with his closest family members and friends, as well as figures on the periphery of his orbit. Some offered to help his campaign and his real estate business. Some offered dirt on his Democratic opponent. Repeatedly, Russian nationals suggested Trump should hold a peacemaking sit-down with Vladi­mir Putin — and offered to broker such a summit. In all, Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show.”

Trump calls Cohen hush money for sex worker a ‘simple private transaction’ - Fox News: “President Trump on Monday denied the hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election were campaign contributions, instead calling them a ‘simple private transaction.’ ‘So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,’ Trump tweeted. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, recently admitted in a plea deal to violating federal campaign finance laws by arranging payments to Daniels and McDougal on Trump's behalf, according to the plea. Prosecutors on Friday released a sentencing memo calling for Cohen to a ‘substantial term of imprisonment’ for the president’s former fixer. On Monday, Trump took aim at Cohen, saying that if a mistake was made and it was considered a contribution, the ‘liability’ should be with the lawyer.”

WaPo: “Faced with a devastating loss in Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Monday that she would delay a vote on the Brexit deal she negotiated with the European Union and instead return to Brussels to ask for more concessions. ‘If we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin,’ May conceded to a packed chamber in the House of Commons. Nearly 100 members of her own Conservative Party had signaled they would vote against her half-in, half-out version of Brexit. The pound sterling plummeted and the stock markets in the United States and Europe sank on news of Brexit chaos. May was clear she would not tear up the negotiated 600-page withdrawal agreement — she said again it was the best available deal — but will ‘do all that I can to secure the reassurances this House requires to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people.’”

David Brooks: ‘Liberal Parents, Radical Children’ NYT

Pelosi will be part time speaker, part time party referee come 2019 - Bloomberg

Elizabeth Warren is full-steam ahead, naysayers or not - Politico

Nebraska goes back to primary system after Dems vote to discontinue caucuses - Omaha World-Herald

U.S. Census shows America's wealth concentrated around Washington - Axios

Kevin Williamson: Republicans have to pay attention to urban America - National Review

“No comment!” – Sen. Tom Cotton’s three-year-old son said to reporters while walking through the Capitol with dad.

It’s time again for our annual year-end edition saluting the year’s best journalism, and we need your input. What stories stood out? Which journalists helped you understand the world in a better way? Who did it with integrity and an unflinching commitment to the truth? What about the ones who made you think or laugh? You can read last year’s winners here to get an idea of what we’re looking for. Share your suggestions with us by email at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM 

KTVA: “It wasn't an aftershock that woke up some Alaskans earlier [Wednesday] morning. Around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, Kyle Stultz woke up to his doorbell going off. Security cameras catch all sorts of things here in Alaska, for Stultz and his partner Allie Johnstone, they had an unexpected visitor caught on camera. … After checking on their dogs and looking out the door to find nothing, Stultz assumed some neighborhood kids were playing a prank. ‘We were thinking kids coming through playing ding dong ditch or maybe a neighbor coming through. We had no idea,’ Stultz said. So they checked their security system and were surprised to see a moose caboose. ‘We had this nice moose behind waiting for us right here,’ Stultz said. ‘And he decided to back up right into it and that’s how he got our doorbell.’ … The couple said they're just happy the security camera caught something positive this time. ‘It makes you feel safe and that it could catch moments like that where it’s not just security,’ Johnstone said. ‘It’s also a bit of comic relief. It’s really nice.’”

“Which is why my default view of espionage is to never believe anyone because everyone is trained in deception. This is not a value judgment; it’s a job description.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) writing in the Washington Post on March 9, 2017.  

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.