How John Kelly became Donald Trump’s ‘chief in name only’
The retired Marine general was brought in to tame the president, but in the end Trump boxed him in
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Elania Johnson on politico.com on July 30, 2018.
John Kelly got the official news of his promotion a year ago the same way a select few in the Trump administration have – by presidential tweet.
Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, had talked with the president about coming on board as White House chief of staff, but the two had yet to discuss the timing of an announcement or an official roll-out when Trump tweeted from aboard Air Force One: “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American ….”
I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2017
The announcement’s unexpected timing and the unorthodox forum may have represented a feature of the Trump presidency that Kelly sought to normalise when he took the job, but those hopes have not materialised. (A White House spokeswoman said that at the time of Trump’s tweet, Kelly had received a formal job offer and “was aware his promotion would be announced in the coming days”.)
A year into the job, Kelly’s attempts to implement traditional processes in an untraditional White House have failed, according to a dozen people in and outside the administration – though virtually all concede the West Wing runs better than it used to.
Kelly’s allies say he took the job out of a sense of duty, and he has suggested he doesn’t enjoy it much. “It is not the best job I ever had,” he told reporters in October.
Increasingly, the sober-minded Marine seems to be in on the joke about the relative futility of his labours: “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” he has told his aides, only to show up for work the following day.
Early mornings in the office have been supplanted by sweat sessions at the gym.
Many of Trump’s friends and advisers have concluded the president doesn’t really want a chief of staff – and he has several confidants urging him to operate without one.
But for this president, keeping Kelly around offers the best of both worlds: somebody to blame when things go awry but nobody fettering his freedom of action.
Kelly, people around him say, no longer works to keep his mercurial boss on task or on message, with a Republican close to the White House referring to him as a “chief of staff in name only”.
“The president knows that it is necessary to have a chief of staff that allows him to do things that only he, as president, can do,” said White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters.
But nearly all the traces of the martial regime Kelly initially sought to impose have vanished. His efforts to centralise lines of reporting – he made a point of asking Trump’s own daughter Ivanka to report to him – have gone by the wayside.
“The president, probably because of his business background, seems to prefer a flatter organisation for his White House staff than do most presidents. That’s his prerogative, of course, and General Kelly has effectively managed to it,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a Trump and Kelly confidant who recommended Kelly to senior members of the Trump transition in 2016.
With the president working around his own chief, keeping Trump on task has proved a challenge. Trump now adds to his daily schedule in a black appointment book, jotting down meetings he schedules the day of with the help of his personal aide, Madeline Westerhout.
A White House spokeswoman said Westerhout coordinates those meetings with the chief of staff’s office.
Kelly has done away with “meeting crashers”, the West Wing aides who showed up for meetings uninvited, according to a White House aide, but he has not been able to curb Trump’s practice of adding and subtracting advisers to meetings throughout the day or of turning scheduled gatherings into freewheeling discussions of subjects that suit his interests – including those suggested to him by his coterie of outside advisers, including Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“He comes down for the day, and whatever he saw on Fox and Friends, he schedules meetings based on that,” said one former White House official.
“If it’s Iran, it’s ‘Get John Bolton down here!’ … If he’s seen something on TV or [was] talking to Hannity the night before, he’s got lots of flexibility to do whatever he wants to do.”
Chafing at the controls Kelly attempted to implement, an increasingly confident president has settled into a management style that most closely resembles that of an inauspicious predecessor: Gerald Ford.
The 38th president, who communicated directly with nearly a dozen senior advisers, described it as “the spokes of the wheel” – with the president sitting at the centre, an approach left discredited by Ford’s tenure.
“Every president learns you cannot govern without an empowered chief of staff to execute your agenda,” says Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a history of modern chiefs of staff.
“If Donald Trump wants to be Jimmy Carter, if he wants to be a one-term president, he should try to govern without a chief of staff.”
Kelly is the first retired general to hold the chief of staff position since Alexander Haig during the Ford administration.
Whipple recounts Haig grousing, according to Ford’s personal aide, that thanks to Ford’s chaotic management of the West Wing, “We have no record of what was discussed or decided or anything else. We cannot run the White House this way!”
(Ford was known to make decisions after consulting privately with his personal photographer, just as Trump frequently pulls the trigger after consulting Hannity or his business associates.)
Like the easy-going Ford and the strait-laced Haig, Trump and Kelly have had a rocky relationship from the moment Kelly moved to the West Wing.
As secretary of homeland security, Kelly gained Trump’s respect as a true believer in the president’s immigration agenda and for his no-nonsense approach to policing the southern US border.
“If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce – then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” he said in a speech at George Washington University in April 2017.
“Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Arriving in the West Wing last year, Kelly did everything he could to distinguish his tenure from that of his predecessor, Reince Priebus.
He revoked White House badges from campaign aides who were never brought into the administration; pushed out Trump loyalists, from chief strategist Steve Bannon to Apprentice star Omarosa Manigault, who were blamed for dissension and infighting; and imposed a policymaking apparatus intended to control the flow of information that reached the president.
He also worked to prevent the president from summoning aides into the Oval Office on a whim and urged the president to place his phone calls through the White House switchboard.
But while Trump and many of his aides chafed at the new order, three White House officials said these practices didn’t last longer than six weeks.
With closer contact, Trump and Kelly have proven increasingly incompatible. The president makes decisions in part based on the blurts emitted from a media world of his own creation, his television tuned to Fox News and his cellphone at the ready to dial up any number of its on-air talent.
Kelly, by contrast, rarely watches television and doesn’t follow Twitter, the forum on which the president announces many of his decisions.
“Believe it or not, I do not follow the tweets,” Kelly said in November.
“I find out about them.”
At critical times, White House aides say, this inattention to traditional and social media has created blind spots for Kelly in an administration where the boss’ actions are often shaped by news coverage.
His lowest moment came in February in the days following former White House staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation amid multiple allegations of past spousal abuse.
Kelly himself was the subject of a rash of negative news stories after he issued a statement of support for Porter.
White House aides were perplexed that he did not appear aware of the coverage – or of how bad it had become.
Though he does not enjoy the first-among-equals status afforded many of the chiefs of staff who preceded him, Kelly remains an influential voice on national security issues.
The president weighs his advice alongside that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Bolton and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and he has been particularly vocal in pushing back against the president’s impulsive demands to withdraw American troops from the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere around the globe.
On other issues, however, Trump, a president who has elevated more military leaders into key political positions than any of his modern predecessors and praised them in the highest terms – “my generals” from “central casting” – has also has pooh-poohed their advice.
“They have blinders on,” the president has said, arguing that they “don’t understand anything except for military tactics” and “they’re not businessmen”, according to a Republican close to the White House.
That helps to explain not so much why Kelly’s influence has waned, but rather why he never had the impact so many people in and outside the White House had hoped for in the first place.
Reports of Kelly’s diminishing influence and of his ultimate demise have ebbed and flowed. But White House officials are nearly unanimous in their agreement that Kelly is an improvement over what came before.
“He improved a bad situation so it looked like he was making advances and now, it’s not so much that he has lost any kind of standing, it’s that the whole operation is run more smoothly and so there’s less need for what he was doing,” said a senior administration official.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans also say matters have improved, and Kelly remains a reassuring presence to lawmakers.
“I believe every day he puts out fires, sometimes from the staff, sometimes from Cabinet members, and sometimes in the Oval Office itself,” said Republican Senator Rob Portman.
“But he does it quietly.”