John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, was brought into the White House to impose order, but less than a year later, the story of the Trump presidency is increasingly being shaped by people who don’t answer to him.
Kelly has been unable to contain the escalating chaos coming from beyond the West Wing, leaving him marginalized by some White House staff — and by the president he serves, according to interviews with 10 administration officials, former White House and campaign aides, and Republicans close to the White House.
The chief of staff has no authority to rein in Rudy Giuliani, who intentionally contradicted the president’s statements regarding hush money payments made by Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen to porn actress Stormy Daniels. And Kelly is unable to keep Trump away from outside agitators like Corey Lewandowski or David Bossie, two former top campaign aides who traveled with the president last weekend to a campaign rally in Michigan.
“The president is having Gen. Kelly swing in the wind by virtue of allowing individuals to go around him and by not including him in the meetings that a chief of staff ought to be a part of,” said Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who later served as the secretary of defense and director of the CIA. “When you have that kind of erosion of trust taking place, it makes it hard for the chief of staff to do the job.”
Panetta added: “I think John Kelly is at a point where he will have to make an important decision if he wants to operate with diminished powers and frankly be a clerk.”
Like Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, Kelly was handed the impossible task of containing a mercurial boss and a rotating case of administration officials, former campaign aides and outside advisers given to feuds and backbiting. Kelly spent his first several weeks in the White House playing the role of traffic cop of the Oval Office for up to 12 hours a day, “like a hall monitor,” said one senior administration official.
As the president has grown tired of following the rules Kelly has imposed and feels more confident in his own governing style, the people Kelly is supposed to oversee have proved willing to buck his management.
The dissatisfaction with Kelly’s leadership was evident this week when eight staffers told NBC that Kelly had called the president “an idiot” — a story that reflected less on the president’s capacities than on the chief of staff’s stature with some of his colleagues.
“Anytime you have eight administration sources who are conspiring against you on this and putting you in conflict with the president, that is mutiny and a coup d’état of leadership,” said one former Trump campaign official.
To some on the inside of the administration, the situation doesn’t bode well for Kelly’s future.
“He doesn’t have control over the White House he runs,” said another senior administration official. “There’s no common purpose binding people together.”
Another administration official dismissed the NBC story as one planted by “a great number of people who were forced out on Kelly’s watch, as well as people on the inside who are not accustomed to having to report to anyone but the president.”
The same official stressed that this was also a story, in part, born out of people’s frustration over not receiving security clearances for top White House jobs — and added that the president had not been upset by the story.
“Some wrongly believe the chief stands between them and their security clearances, but it’s not his call,” the official added. “People have a hard time looking in the mirror. It’s a lot easier to train their anger on Gen. Kelly and blame him for why they don’t work there.”
After the NBC story came out, Kelly dictated a statement to the press office stating that the allegations were untrue that press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then distributed to reporters.
“I spend more time with the president than anyone else, and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand, and he and I both know this story is total BS,” Kelly said in his statement, released on Monday night. “This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”
In the eyes of some White House aides, Kelly then undermined the press shop’s efforts by sending out his deputy, Zachary Fuentes, to offer his defense — a move that some interpreted as a lack of faith in the abilities of the press team.
“This is not the first time Gen. Kelly has blamed the press team for his woes and used them as a human shield to deflect from his own missteps and mistakes. He did the same during the Rob Porter situation,” said a former White House official.
For many in the White House and close to it, the crisis following revelations that Porter, Trump’s former staff secretary, had allegedly abused his two ex-wives, marked a turning point in Kelly’s tenure.
Initially, Kelly defended the former White House top aide staff secretary against charges that he emotionally and physically abused his former spouses — which raised questions about why a top staffer, potentially susceptible to blackmail, was handling sensitive White House documents and participating in senior staff meetings without a permanent security clearance.
After photos of the bruised face of one of Porter’s former wives surfaced, Kelly changed his story repeatedly about when the White House first discovered the allegations, how he handled them, and even whether Porter resigned or was fired.
In the wake of the Porter episode, Kelly revamped the way the White House issued security clearances, and it caused some top aides including Jared Kushner to lose their clearances.
“The Porter episode took a pretty good chunk of shine off of Kelly because there were about 15 different descriptions of what happened. It seemed like a complete clusterfuck,” said another former White House official. “That was when the spotlight got focused on Kelly.”
Kelly’s image has never really recovered.
That episode also coincided with the president growing more comfortable in his presidency, so much so that he largely acts as his own chief of staff and follows his instincts more than in the early days of the administration, said several administration and campaign officials.
Increasingly, the president is functioning as his own legal strategist, communications director and top policy adviser, cutting Kelly out of major personnel and policy decisions, like hiring Larry Kudlow as director of the National Economic Council, or the final decision to impose an additional $100 billion in tariffs on Chinese products or the suggestion at one point to withdraw troops from Syria. He also overrode Kelly in selecting John Bolton as his new national security adviser.
This has rendered Kelly less of a major player than he was in the summer of 2017 — and that has given others greater opportunity to access Trump without the filter of the “chief,” as he’s called by many White House aides.
One senior administration official argued that “there is a big difference between losing influence versus not being in the room for every single debate,” adding that many of the systems built for the president remain in place.
“He is still the chief of staff, and when he orders something done, people comply. It’s not a popularity contest,” the official said.
Kelly’s diminished stature also does not mean he will leave the White House immediately. He does not annoy or grate on the president in the same way that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster did — even if the two men often disagree, said one Republican close the White House.
That could buy Kelly time to reach the mark of having served as the White House chief of staff for one year, a goal that Priebus desperately strove for but ultimately failed to reach.
But a bad news cycle or tumultuous revelation could also topple Kelly, especially since he retains the support of a very small group of White House aides.
“If the president continues to be confident in his policies, then Kelly could survive. But the minute there is some new stress or scandal that lasts beyond a couple of news cycles, then we will see the real status of the relationship between Kelly and the president,” said the former campaign official.
Annie Karni, Eliana Johnson, and Matthew Nussbaum contributed to this report.