6 key takeaways from John Kelly’s reported fall from Trump’s good graces
White House chief of staff John Kelly’s tenure in the Trump administration may be waning, according to a recent Washington Post report.
The Post published an account of Kelly’s current “downward arc” in the White House Saturday night, drawing on interviews with 16 — largely anonymous — Trump administration officials and allies to detail the ongoing clash between Trump, who is more “freewheeling” and impulse-prone, and Kelly, a more “structured” disciplinarian.
“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,” the report noted.
Here are six things to know from the Post’s report.
Kelly’s responsibilities in the White House have diminished
Since Kelly took office, the Post reported that the chief of staff has been successful in imposing a new degree of control in the West Wing, from limiting Oval Office access to creating daily “policy time” sessions in which Trump presides over advisers as they offer competing views on policy issues.
Yet according to the Post, the chief of staff currently doesn’t have the same level of control as before. Trump began inviting his own guests into the Oval Office and calling allies without Kelly’s approval starting a month into the chief of staff’s tenure, the Post reported.
Now, the chief of staff “neither lurks around the Oval Office nor listens in on as many of the president’s calls, even with foreign leaders,” the Post reported, and has not been “fully consulted” on recent personnel decisions.
Some White House colleagues have lost their trust in Kelly
According to the Post report, Kelly isn’t being supported by his White House coworkers. The Post reported that Kelly has lost the “trust and support” of some White House staff, and colleagues reportedly believe the chief of staff is “tone deaf” when it comes to politics.
“When you lose that power,” Leon Panetta, a Democratic former White House chief of staff, told the Post, “you become a virtual White House intern, being told where to go and what to do.”
Among those reportedly disappointed with Kelly is first lady Melania Trump, who is said to have gotten angry at the chief of staff after he fired Trump’s personal aide Johnny McEntee. The 27-year-old assistant was reportedly fired over a security issue and was moved to a position on Trump’s campaign staff.
Some White House staff were reportedly also upset with Kelly when he told reporters that he had fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while Tillerson was on the toilet — a version of events that the State Department has contested. According to the Post, some staffers found the comments “crude and demeaning.”
The chief of staff has a temper — and it’s sparked threats of resignation
The Post report also detailed accounts in which Kelly has lost his temper at his colleagues, including angry episodes after the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and an instance in which the audio didn’t work during a video conference with White House aides at Trump’s New Jersey golf course. When aides have followed protocol by filling the chief of staff in when Trump has violated Kelly’s processes, they have reportedly often been met with the response, “I guess you’re the chief of staff now, so why don’t you handle it?”
When Trump fired Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, Kelly’s frustration was so intense that Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “tried to calm him and offered pep talks,” the Post reported.
Kelly’s frustrations have also at times involved him threatening to resign; one White House official cited by the Post quipped that Kelly’s threats to resign are “sort of a weekly event.” The Post cited an Axios report alleging that Kelly threatened to quit on March 28 after a contentious meeting with Trump, and added that a similar episode had also taken place in the fall when Trump threatened to fire now-former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The chief of staff’s repeated declarations of his resignation, however, are likely more of a way to vent “momentary frustrations” than actual threats, sources cited by the Post noted.
Kelly offers conflicting accounts about White House events
In addition to his temper, Kelly also reportedly has sparked frustration by offering conflicting accounts about events at the White House.
While Kelly’s conflicting accounts over his firing of former White House aide Rob Porter have already been reported, the Post article also noted that Kelly offered differing accounts in March over the dismissal of national security adviser H.R. McMaster. According to the Post, Kelly privately told staffers that Trump had decided to fire McMaster — but when the Post reported Trump’s decision, Kelly later largely reversed course, saying to some Trump advisers that the president’s decision to fire McMaster had been made while telling others the exact opposite. The conflicting reports may have been a way for Kelly to use the president to push the chief of staff’s own agenda against McMaster, some advisers cited by the Post suggested.
“At the top, you have someone who consistently does not tell the truth,” James K. Glassman, the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, told the Post. “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.”
The “fundamental bond” between Kelly and Trump has been broken
Tensions between Kelly and Trump have “blossomed in episodic bursts” since fall 2017, according to the Post report. In addition to the episodes in which Kelly has threatened to resign, Trump reportedly lost his temper at Kelly over a January Fox News interview in which the chief of staff said Trump’s immigration views were not “fully formed” during the campaign.
The president reportedly also blasted Kelly after Trump was criticized by conservative allies for installing Nielsen as Homeland Security head at Kelly’s recommendation. According to the Post, Nielsen has become Kelly’s “enforcer” in the White House, as the chief of staff does not like to be “the bearer of bad news.”
“You didn’t tell me she was a [expletive] George W. Bush person,” Trump reportedly told Kelly.
Amid Trump and Kelly’s latest spat of outbursts, the president has reportedly told allies that he wants to hold more “energetic, frenzied rallies,” where he will be free from Kelly’s strict control.
“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,” Panetta told the Post. “When that happens, it’s just a matter of time.”
Nevertheless, Trump does have respect for Kelly
Despite the reports of Trump and Kelly’s frequent tensions, the Post report alleged that things aren’t all bad between the president and his chief of staff.
According to the Post, Kelly’s military past means that the chief of staff still “commands a level of respect” from Trump, more so than Trump respected Kelly’s predecessor Reince Priebus. The president also still consults Kelly on matters such as immigration and national security, and Kelly is reportedly “adapting to Trump’s world” through actions like granting a book interview to Fox News anchor Jeanine Pirro.
One source cited by the Post contested the notion that tensions had escalated between Trump and Kelly in recent weeks, explaining instead that “Kelly initially viewed his job as babysitting, but now feels less of a need to be omnipresent, while Trump, who once considered Kelly a security blanket, feels increasingly emboldened to act alone.”
Trump still also talks to Kelly more than any other official, the source noted.
Trump, one White House adviser told the Post, “doesn’t like a lot of the stuff [Kelly] has done. He often gets angry and says, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’”
“But Kelly has a longer chance of surviving because Trump respects him.”