President Donald Trump stirs up so many problems on a daily basis that his chief of staff, John Kelly, has come to define his success in terms of his ability to solve them. “If we end the day in neutral,” Kelly has told close associates on several occasions, “it’s a good day.”
Kelly still blames himself for returning to Washington during the president’s summer vacation at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, the day Trump condemned both sides for violence that erupted during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the first time Kelly spent an extended period away from the president after taking over from Reince Priebus in late July, and he felt that Trump might have avoided the ensuing public relations catastrophe had he been there. A distraught looking Kelly stood behind the president the following Monday when he tried to repair his initial in a follow-up speech at Trump Tower.
Thursday seemed to offer a case study of the challenges confronting Kelly — and it illustrates why he has come to adopt a largely defensive approach to his job. The day began with the president tweeting his opposition to the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a measure his own party was trying to push through Congress. It ended with a report that, in a closed-door meeting on immigration, he had demanded to know why the United States was admitting so many immigrants from “shithole countries.”
“In the chief-of-staff job, you juggle the balls that you have to. But normally, you know what those balls are. Now, you have a president who keeps throwing new balls, so [Kelly] is constantly having to rejuggle,” said Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s onetime chief of staff.
The White House disputed the notion that Kelly blamed himself for the president’s remarks, and said that every day the American people go to bed safe is a good day.
But Kelly’s mind-set, reported by POLITICO for the first time, is a testament to how Trump has transformed not only the presidency but the role of presidential chief of staff. Often described as the second most-powerful position in government, the job has previously demanded a deep understanding of politics and policy. Presidential number twos have worked to ration their bosses’ time and to help them prioritize in order to push their agendas forward; Kelly more often tries to keep Trump occupied and at arm’s length from the levers of power and the workings of government.
His attitude is not entirely unprecedented. Ronald Reagan’s adviser, Jack Watson, referred to the chief of staff as the “javelin catcher”—though in his analogy, the javelins were heading toward, rather than coming from, the president. At the same time, some are raising concerns that Kelly, whose military background gives him a discrete Washington toolkit, is trying to do too much.
These people say that, while the former Marine general is an able crisis manager who has brought discipline to the West Wing, he lacks the political know-how and the relationships on Capitol Hill essential to any White House — even one with a disruptor-in-chief.
This account of how Kelly has refashioned the position into one devoted largely to damage prevention and cleanup is based on 10 interviews with White House officials, Capitol Hill aides and former presidential chiefs of staff, several of whom requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
“Trump is unique,” said Chris Whipple, author of the historical tome “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” “But it’s not enough to say, ‘You wouldn’t believe the shit I stopped from happening.’”
Current and former colleagues say that even as Kelly has taken greater control over legislative affairs—in late December, he announced that the administration’s congressional liaison, Marc Short, would report directly to him—he has a dim view of lawmakers, sometimes referring to them as “a bunch of idiots,” according to two White House aides. He also has expressed frustration with the pace at which legislation moves through Congress.
Nowhere has his exasperation been more evident than in his dealings with Congress on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era initiative that granted legal protection to people brought to the country illegally as children, an issue he tangled with lawmakers over as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Those idiots up there, it’s going to be their fault of DACA doesn’t happen,” Kelly told colleagues in a recent meeting, according to the two White House aides. Trump ended the program in September, and Congress now faces a March deadline to act before it officially expires.
As DHS secretary, Kelly pressed lawmakers to act on DACA before the president terminated the program and, as he has said publicly, “They did exactly nothing”—an experience the military man found particularly galling.
When Democratic Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez called him a “disgrace to the uniform” after a private meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Kelly shot back that members of Congress “have the luxury of saying what they want as they do nothing and have almost no responsibility.”
“As my blessed mother used to say,” he added, “‘empty barrels make the most noise.’”
It was the same phrase he would use six weeks later when he emerged at the podium in the White House briefing room to defend the president against charges leveled by Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, that Trump had been thoughtless, if not downright rude, in the handling of a condolence call to the widow of a fallen special forces officer. Calling Wilson an “empty barrel,” Kelly went on to bungle an account of the opening of an FBI building in South Florida, wrongly accusing her on national television of delivering self-centered and self-indulgent remarks at the event in 2015.
“He spoke up in a situation where he should not have spoken and I think should’ve had the judgment not to speak at all,” said one former White House chief of staff. “There’s no benefit to the chief of staff getting into a back-and-forth with any member of Congress. The role requires you to stay out of that kind of stuff.”
While there is broad agreement that Kelly’s public criticism of Wilson was a mistake, those who have worked closely with him say his dustups with Democrats are indicative of a general contempt for lawmakers—one that, over time, could undermine the White House’s relationship with Capitol Hill.
“As a military officer and somebody who spent his life as a Marine, he had a lot of concerns about whether those in Congress are really committed to the country or to themselves,” said Panetta, for whom Kelly served as military assistant during the Obama administration, when Panetta was secretary of defense. “I think generally as an institution, he oftentimes raised questions about whether they were really committed to doing what they said they were going to.”
As he has taken near total control of the White House, however, some of his White House colleagues have raised concerns that his attitude toward Congress will affect the administration’s ability to push forward its domestic agenda. While Republican senators are by and large grateful for his presence, he remains a remote and mysterious figure to most lawmakers, the vast majority of whom have had very little contact with him.
“There ought to be at least someone who is designated by the president and John who has the experience to really work with the Congress and get these tough challenges worked on. I think that’s what’s missing,” Panetta said. “The hope is that Congress can kind of get their act together. In my experience, that just doesn’t happen unless the White House is driving that process.”
James Baker, Reagan’s first White House chief of staff, had not been a part of Reagan’s inner circle before he was elected president, but he served in effect as his chief political strategist and convened regular meetings of a legislative strategy group to hash out presidential priorities.
Panetta himself, based on his own experience as a California congressional representative, was able to warn Clinton that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was likely to be a difficult negotiating partner in the 1995 budget negotiations—talks that eventually led to a monthlong government shutdown for which Clinton was mentally prepared, and for which the GOP took the blame.
Where Kelly has been far more successful is in imposing discipline on the West Wing. He’s stopped aides from wandering in and out of the Oval Office, limited the information that makes its way to the president’s desk, and dismissed underperforming staffers and those with vague or nonexistent duties.
“Chief of Staff John Kelly has dedicated his life to serving our country. He is an exemplary chief of staff who has brought order, discipline, and years of experience to the White House,” said deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters.
“He has gotten people to up their game in staff meetings,” said a senior White House official. “People come better prepared.”
But while those close to him say Kelly has succeeded in disciplining the White House staff in ways Priebus, who held co-equal status with former chief strategist Steve Bannon, was not empowered to do, they also say he is less aware of his own blind spots. When the president was focused on a topic outside of his domain, for example, he would happily summon in former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn or immigration adviser Stephen Miller.
Kelly, by contrast, keeps tight control over whom the president hears from, including his policy advisers — something some have likened to “control with no purpose,” since Kelly himself is ill-equipped to brief the president on domestic issues.
He seems to view his job as a set of challenges distinct from those faced by previous White House chiefs of staff, none of whom he has looked to much for advice.
A month after the presidential election, 10 former White House chiefs of staff convened with President-elect Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus to offer their advice about how to succeed in the job. When Kelly replaced Priebus in July, several of the same men, including Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley and Josh Bolten, reached out to Kelly, who did not respond to their overtures.
None, however, was critical of him for ignoring their phone calls—and each was sympathetic to the challenges he was confronting.
“Almost every one of those chiefs went in there thinking that this was probably mission impossible for Trump’s White House chief of staff, that this is a guy who is intellectually and temperamentally unfit for office,” said Whipple, who is at work updating his book with chapters on the Priebus and Kelly tenures in the White House.
“There’s never been anybody like Donald Trump in the Oval Office, so from Day One it’s been a challenge like no other for Kelly. Somebody really close to Trump told me this was like Fred Trump reaching from beyond the grave—John Kelly is the man Fred Trump always wanted Donald Trump to be.”