WASHINGTON — On his fifth day on the job as President Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly gathered about 200 White House aides for a meeting where he spelled out in blunt terms the way things are going to work in the West Wing he now oversees.
The retired Marine Corps four-star general said he didn’t care whether they had been part of the Trump campaign or had joined the administration from Capitol Hill or another corner of the political world, according to people who attended the meeting. They all work for the president now, he told them, and they had to act as one team.
Echoing the Marines’ credo of “God, Country, Corps,” Kelly said he expects all of them to put country first, the president second, and their own needs and priorities last. He stressed work ethic. And he sharply warned them against leaking, an obsession of Trump’s. Even if it may seem innocuous to pass along some bit of classified information to someone without a clearance, he said, it’s a crime.
Since his swearing-in last week, Kelly has moved swiftly to bring order to a chaotic and unruly White House, according to accounts from 12 administration aides and outside observers.
After moving over from the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci just ten days after Trump had brought him in, and dismissed two National Security Council aides who were thought to be divisive or acting outside the chain of command.
Kelly’s influence was seen in Trump’s unusual late-night statement on Friday in support of his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, with whom he’s been at odds on and off for months. Both Kelly and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner have helped shore up McMaster and resist calls for his ouster by some on the far right, who sought to question the Army lieutenant general’s support for Israel or decry his views as too conventional or globalist for Trump’s brand. Trump backed McMaster as a #FireMcMaster campaign took flight on Twitter.
In his first week, Kelly also quickly moved to take control of the door to the Oval Office. His predecessor, Reince Priebus, seemed unable to stop White House staffers from popping in unannounced to see the president — dropping news articles on his desk that he would love or hate, sharing ideas for tweets, or just getting valuable face time with the boss. Trump, who’s known to be easily distracted, would wave-in the visitors, even as his scheduled appointments sometimes backed up. Kelly insists that anyone who wants to see the president now must go through him.
Perhaps even more important, Kelly is testing his authority to tame Trump’s sometimes reckless tweeting habits. While Kelly isn’t vetting every presidential tweet, Trump has shown a willingness to consult with his chief of staff before hitting “send” on certain missives that might cause an international uproar or lead to unwelcome distractions, according to three people familiar with the interactions. Kelly has been “offering a different way to say the same thing,” the person said.
Trump has made it clear, however, that he reserves the right to ignore advice on tweets. On Aug. 3, Trump lashed out at Congress for passing a bill that limited the president’s power to lift sanctions on Russia. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!”
Since then, most of Trump’s tweets have been more buttoned down — thanking supporters or praising himself for the strong stock market.
“His influence has been felt and seen immediately,” Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and White House personnel director who worked for nine White House chiefs of staff in three Republican administrations, said of Kelly. “If there’s no order and process and structure in the West Wing, no president is going to be successful.” That’s where Kelly’s long military experience and months-long tenure leading the sprawling Homeland Security agency have served him well, she said.
Leon Panetta, whom Kelly served as senior military aide when Panetta was President Obama’s Defense Secretary, was among the first people Kelly called when Trump named him to the White House position. Panetta, chief of staff to President Clinton for 2½ years, said in an interview that he shared with Kelly his view that mutual trust between the president and the chief is essential.
Panetta wasn’t surprised to hear of Kelly’s credo to his staff. “For a Marine general, country is always first,” he said. “The key to dealing with leaks is to make clear that the staff is a team and they have to be dedicated to country and then to the president. Their loyalty has to be there first and if it is, that’s the best way to take care of leaks.”
Kelly sought to protect and build on his early progress when he accompanied the president on Air Force One on Friday afternoon to Trump’s golf property in Bedminster, N.J., where Trump is operating with a scaled-back staff presence during a two-week vacation. (The president bridles at the word: “This is not a vacation - meetings and calls!” he tweeted late Saturday.)
Joining Kelly at Bedminster this weekend is Rick Wadell, a deputy national security adviser and major general in the Army Reserves, and White House staff secretary Rob Porter, whose job it is to filter the materials others are seeking to get in front of the president. Kelly has asked Porter to help vet documents before they reach Trump’s hands.
While a reduced official schedule may leave more time for golf and family, it also means more hours in the day in which Trump could be watching television or engaging on Twitter, two of his most volatile pastimes.
On Saturday, Kelly briefed Trump in the morning. He also was said to be mapping out plans for the president’s meetings with lawmakers and others in the coming days.
Bringing the White House under control is only part of Kelly’s brief. He must also quickly move to help Trump patch up his fractious relationship with Republicans in Congress, whose support the president will need in coming battles over the debt ceiling, budget and tax reform.
Kelly is widely respected on Capitol Hill, but has no recent experience wrangling legislation. He spent part of his first week reaching out to GOP lawmakers, many of whom have signaled they no longer feel compelled to follow Trump’s lead.
Ultimately, Kelly’s success will depend on whether he continues to have the backing of his boss. Trump has contained himself for brief periods before, only to return to form. It may prove difficult for Kelly to prevail on Trump to bottle up his tweets at those who defy or criticize him — or to refrain from expressing his outrage at the expanding investigations into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, a subject that has given rise to some of his most explosive statements.
Over time, says Panetta, Trump could come to chafe at Kelly’s insistence on order. “He’s been able to take some important steps to improve discipline, control access to the president and the Oval Office, and develop a chain of command within the White House itself,” he said. At the same time, “It’s just the beginning — obviously time will tell about whether the president will continue to support those efforts.”