The Continuing Humiliation Of John Kelly
After eight months in office, the pressures on Chief of Staff John Kelly continue to mount under a President who cannot be controlled and whose behavior will not change.
When retired Lt. General John Kelly left his post as Secretary of Homeland Security to become White House Chief of Staff after the sudden departure of Reince Priebus in July of last year, there was open speculation about just how long he would last. Given Kelly’s military background, it was clear that he would seek to impose discipline on a West Wing that, under Priebus’s reign, had become anything but disciplined. According to multiple reports at the time, the Priebus era was one in which virtually anyone who wanted it effectively had open access to the Oval Office and to the President, putting news in his hand without the Chief of Staff or anyone else seeing it.
In the beginning, it seemed as though Kelly was having some success in bringing order. At virtually the same time he entered office, Anthony Scaramucci, who had been brought in to serve as White House Communications Director after Sean Spicer was effectively fired, was shown the door even before his tenure officially began. The ensuing weeks also saw the dismissal of controversial Presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka and, perhaps most significantly, Steve Bannon, who had been the President’s chief political strategist during the campaign and filled a similar position at the White House. Other departures of note from the White House staff over the course of Kelly’s tenure include Omarosa Manigault, the former Apprentice contestant who had bizarrely fallen into Trump’s orbit and earned a position in the White House and who was dismissed from her position in what appeared to be unusual and dramatic circumstances. There were also reports that Kelly had imposed some level of discipline inside the West Wing, limiting the number of people who had “walk-in” access to the Oval Office and taking greater control of the information that reached the President than Priebus ever had. For a time, it seemed from the outside that Kelly had succeeded in imposing some of that military-like discipline on the West Wing.
Notwithstanding all of that, there have been plenty of signs that Kelly’s efforts to impose order in the West Wing weren’t succeeding entirely, and the main reason for that has been, of course, the President himself. Despite all of the efforts that Kelly may have been making over the past eight months, he’s still dealing with a President that clearly chafes under Kelly’s efforts to impose discipline and that’s leading to what clearly seems to be growing conflict between Kelly and his boss:
After White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly pressured President Trump last fall to install his top deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, atop the Department of Homeland Security, the president lost his temper when conservative allies argued that she wasn’t sufficiently hard line on immigration. “You didn’t tell me she was a [expletive] George W. Bush person,” Trump growled.
After Kelly told Fox News Channel’s Bret Baier in a January interview that Trump’s immigration views had not been “fully informed” during the campaign and had since “evolved,” the president berated Kelly in the Oval Office — his shouts so loud they could be heard through the doors.
And less than two weeks ago, Kelly grew so frustrated on the day that Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin that Nielsen and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis both tried to calm him and offered pep talks, according to three people with knowledge of the incident.
“I’m out of here, guys,” Kelly said — comments some interpreted as a resignation threat, but according to a senior administration official, he was venting his anger and leaving work an hour or two early to head home.
The recurring and escalating clashes between the president and his chief of staff trace the downward arc of Kelly’s eight months in the White House. Both his credibility and his influence have been severely diminished, administration officials said, a clear decline for the retired four-star Marine Corps general who arrived with a reputation for integrity and a mandate to bring order to a chaotic West Wing.
Kelly neither lurks around the Oval Office nor listens in on as many of the president’s calls, even with foreign leaders. He has not been fully consulted on several recent key personnel decisions. And he has lost the trust and support of some of the staff, as well as angered first lady Melania Trump, who officials said was upset over his sudden dismissal of Johnny McEntee, the president’s 27-year-old personal aide.
“When you lose that power,” said Leon Panetta, a Democratic former White House chief of staff, “you become a virtual White House intern, being told where to go and what to do.”
The report, by Washington Post reporters Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, and Philip Rucker, came after interviews with “16 administration officials, outside advisers, and presidential confidants” and is well-worth reading in full. What’s most notable, though, are the reports that tensions between Kelly and Trump appear to be increasing:
Days after the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” — a devastating portrayal of the West Wing, informed by Wolff’s hours of unsupervised time there — Kelly berated senior staff, saying the book should have never happened. ”This place was a [expletive] before I got here,” Kelly fumed.
Though some staffers felt unfairly critiqued, others agreed with his assessment.
During the Porter crisis, Kelly found himself under intense scrutiny for the veracity of his whipsaw statements. He publicly praised Porter and privately urged him to stay. But Kelly later claimed that he had demanded Porter’s resignation just 40 minutes after learning the details of the allegations, which conflicted with the White House’s official account delivered by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Many senior staffers were convinced that Kelly was distorting the facts to try to exonerate himself, though some others say his account was accurate.
In March, Kelly again offered contradictory explanations. He privately told staffers that Trump had decided to oust McMaster. But after The Washington Post reported that Trump had made his decision, Kelly began telling others the opposite — while still maintaining to some Trump advisers that the president’s decision had been made. Some advisers thought that Kelly was using the president to push a personal vendetta against McMaster.
In an off-the-record session with reporters, parts of which later were reported, Kelly also said that when he called Tillerson to let him know he was fired, the secretary of state was on the toilet with “Montezuma’s revenge.” Though White House aides said Kelly was simply joking — and the State Department contested his version of the phone call — many staffers found the comment crude and demeaning.
“At the top, you have someone who consistently does not tell the truth,” said James K. Glassman, the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. “That’s a signal to the people below him that they don’t have to tell the truth either, that this is the way we conduct government — we lie when we have to, we mistreat people when we have to, we humiliate them.”
Since last fall, tensions between Kelly and Trump have blossomed in episodic bursts.
In one contentious incident in autumn, when Trump moved to fire Tillerson, Kelly dissuaded him during a heated argument in which he threatened to resign. Trump told Kelly he could keep “his guy,” but soon had his revenge, tweeting “Save your energy Rex” on North Korea.
In fact, Kelly has threatened to resign on multiple occasions — “It’s sort of a weekly event,” one senior White House official quipped — though officials explained his declarations as expressions of momentary frustration. (Axios first reported some details surrounding Kelly’s March resignation threat.)
More recently, Trump has told friends he is eager to stage more energetic, frenzied rallies — yet another realm where he can theoretically slip Kelly’s shackles.
“There has to be a bond here between the chief of staff and the staff and the president, and that fundamental bond has been broken,” said Panetta, also a former defense secretary and CIA director. “When that happens, it’s just a matter of time.”
This report comes at the same time that Axios is reporting that Kelly blew up at Trump and threatened to resign late last month:
What I’m hearing: Kelly blew up at Trump in an Oval Office meeting that day, and while walking back to his office muttered he was going to quit. Sources said it was not related to the David Shulkin firing that happened the same day.
A senior administration official said that calling it a threat was “probably too strong, it was more venting frustration.” Kelly often says he doesn’t have to be there and didn’t seek the job originally.
- Kelly packed up some personal belongings, though I’m told that wasn’t necessarily because he was walking out.
- He was fired up enough that colleagues got allies to call in to calm him down.
- At one point DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — perhaps the person in the administration he trusts most — came over to talk him off the ledge.
Context: Kelly has verbally threatened to quit more than once over the past eight months.
Other recent reports have suggested not only that Kelly could be on his way out, but that Trump may be considering replacing him with, well, nobody:
President Trump reportedly considered firing chief of staff John Kelly earlier this month and fulfilling the duties himself rather than naming a replacement.
NBC News reported Thursday that Trump suggested to others outside the White House that he would leave the chief of staff position open. He would then receive direct reports from a handful of top aides, in a set-up that would resemble how he operated the Trump Organization.
The report was published hours after former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon suggested at a Financial Times event that if Kelly were to depart the administration, Trump would not replace him.Trump and Kelly have reportedly clashed at various times since Kelly took over for Reince Priebus last summer. However, the president is said to have recently told advisers that Kelly’s job is “100 percent safe.”
This report was seemingly confirmed by Corey Lewandowski, who was dismissed as Trump’s Campaign Manager after an incident where he assaulted a reporter but who somehow has worked his way back into the orbit of outside people that Trump frequently turns to for advice:
President Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said Sunday that he believes Trump will likely serve as his own chief of staff if John Kelly leaves the position.
“I think that’s a scenario that could very well play out. The difference with this president is he is the decisionmaker and he loves to have all the information brought to him,” Lewandowski said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“And candidly — and I’m not advocating for Gen. Kelly to leave, I think he should stay — but if he were to go I don’t think there is one person who is the chosen one to step in and fill that role,” he added.
NBC News reported Thursday that Trump considered firing Kelly earlier this month and fulfilling the duties himself rather than naming a replacement. The idea has reportedly been tabled for the time being.Lewandowski said Sunday he believes Trump would be comfortable getting direct reports from a handful of people and then making a decision, because it would mirror how he operated the Trump Organization.
At this point, there appear to be only two things that are keeping John Kelly in office. One is the fact that, notwithstanding the fact that they two have butted heads repeatedly over the past eight months, Trump still respects Kelly due to his military background. In many ways, this is similar to the deference that the President continues to give to Defense Secretary James Mattis, although it’s worth noting that having a similar military background didn’t save H.R. McMaster, who was dismissed from his position in the White House just last month. The other factor is Kelly, who clearly seems to believe that he owes a duty to his country to continue to try to bring order to the most disorderly West Wing and President in recent history, something that no doubt grows out of his military training. As long as these twin factors remain in place, Kelly’s position probably remains secure, but the number of reports we’re seeing about the inner workings of the Trump Administration seem to suggest that Trump is chafing more than ever under the discipline that Kelly is seeking to impose, and that Kelly is growing increasingly frustrated with the whole thing. At some point, one presumes, the proverbial last straw will be placed on the camel’s back and the end will come. The only question is whether Kelly will be fired, or whether he’ll leave in a pique of frustration with a President who is clearly disinterested in listening to anyone other than the voices in his head and, of course, the talking heads on Fox News Channel.