The White House chief of staff position is the successor to the earlier role of the President's private secretary. The role was formalized as the assistant to the president in 1946 and acquired its current title in 1961. The current official title is Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff.
The chief of staff is a political appointee of the president who does not require Senate confirmation, and who serves at the pleasure of the president. While not a legally required role, all presidents since Harry Truman have appointed chiefs of staff.
In the administration of Donald Trump, the current acting chief of staff is Mick Mulvaney, who succeeded John Kelly on January 2, 2019, who himself had replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff on July 31, 2017. On December 8, 2018, President Trump announced that Kelly would be stepping down from his post by the end of the year. On December 14, Trump announced on Twitter that OMB director Mick Mulvaney would become the new acting chief of staff.
The duties of the White House chief of staff vary greatly from one administration to another and, in fact, there is no legal requirement that the president even fill the position. However, since at least 1979, all presidents have found the need for a chief of staff, who typically oversees the actions of the White House staff, manages the president's schedule, and decides who is allowed to meet with the president. Because of these duties, the chief of staff has at various times been labeled "The Gatekeeper."
Originally, the duties now performed by the chief of staff belonged to the president's private secretary and were fulfilled by crucial confidants and advisers such as George B. Cortelyou, Joseph Tumulty, and Louis McHenry Howe to presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively. The private secretary served as the president's de facto chief aide in a role that combined personal and professional assignments of highly delicate and demanding natures, requiring great skill and discretion. The job of gatekeeper and overseeing the president's schedule was separately delegated to the appointments secretary, as with FDR's aide Edwin "Pa" Watson.
From 1933 to 1939, as he greatly expanded the scope of the federal government's policies and powers in response to the Great Depression, Roosevelt relied on his "Brain Trust" of top advisers. Although working directly for the president, they were often appointed to vacant positions in agencies and departments, whence they drew their salaries since the White House lacked statutory or budgetary authority to create new staff positions. It was not until 1939, during Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term in office, that the foundations of the modern White House staff were created using a formal structure. Roosevelt was able to get Congress to approve the creation of the Executive Office of the President, which would report directly to the president. During World War II, Roosevelt created the position of "Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief" for his principal military adviser, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy.
In 1946, in response to the rapid growth of the U.S. government's executive branch, the position of "Assistant to the President of the United States" was established. Charged with the affairs of the White House, it was the immediate predecessor to the modern chief of staff. It was in 1953, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that the president's preeminent assistant was designated the "White House Chief of Staff".
Assistant to the president became a rank generally shared by the chief of staff with such senior aides as deputy chiefs of staff, the White House counsel, the White House press secretary, and others. This new system did not catch on immediately. Democrats Kennedy and Johnson still relied on their appointments secretaries instead, and it was not until the Nixon administration that the chief of staff took over maintenance of the President's schedule. This concentration of power in the Nixon and Ford White House (whose last chief of staff was Dick Cheney) led presidential candidate Jimmy Carter to campaign in 1976 with the promise that he would not appoint a chief of staff. And indeed, for the first two and a half years of his presidency, he appointed no one to the post.
The average tenure for a White House chief of staff is a little more than 18 months. The inaugural chief of staff, John R. Steelman, under Harry S. Truman, was also the last to be a president's only chief of staff, not counting Kenneth O'Donnell during John F. Kennedy's 34 months in office. (Andrew Card and Denis McDonough each served at least one entire presidential term of office under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively). Steelman also holds the record for longest-serving chief of staff (six years).
Most White House chiefs of staff are former politicians, and many continue their political careers in other senior roles. Lyndon Johnson's chief of staff W. Marvin Watson became the Postmaster General later in LBJ's term. Richard Nixon's chief of staff Alexander Haig, a career U.S. Army officer with his capstone military position being CINCUSEUCOM/SACEUR, later became Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. Cheney later became a congressman for Wyoming, Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush and vice president in the George W. Bush administration. Donald Rumsfeld was another chief of staff for Ford and subsequently served as secretary of defense both in the Ford administration and decades later, also in the George W. Bush administration. Rahm Emanuel left the House of Representatives to become Barack Obama's chief of staff and subsequently became mayor of Chicago. Jack Lew, President Obama's fourth chief of staff, was later appointed secretary of the treasury.
Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, loosely describes the role of a White House chief of staff through his interview with former president Barack Obama: "During the last days of his presidency, Barack Obama observed: 'One of the things I've learned is that the big breakthroughs are typically the result of a lot of grunt work—just a whole lot of blocking and tackling.' Grunt work is what chiefs of staff do."
The responsibilities of the chief of staff are both managerial and advisory and can include the following:
- Select key White House staff and supervise them;
- Structure the White House staff system;
- Control the flow of people into the Oval Office;
- Manage the flow of information;
- Protect the interests of the president;
- Negotiate with Congress, other members of the executive branch, and extra-governmental political groups to implement the president's agenda; and
- Advise the president on various issues, including telling the president what they do not want to hear.
These responsibilities extend to firing of staff members: in the case of Omarosa Manigault Newman, who published a tape she said was made in the Situation Room of her firing by Chief of Staff John Kelly, the chief of staff said that his decision for her departure was non-negotiable and that "the staff and everyone on the staff works for me and not the president."
Richard Nixon's first chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, garnered a reputation in Washington for the iron hand he wielded in the position—famously referring to himself as "the president's son-of-a-bitch", he was a rigid gatekeeper who would frequently meet with administration officials in place of the president, then report himself to Nixon on the officials' talking points. Journalist Bob Woodward, in his books All the President's Men and The Secret Man, wrote that many of his sources, including the famous Deep Throat, displayed a genuine fear of Haldeman.