WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was in an especially ornery mood after staff members gently suggested he refrain from injecting politics into day-to-day issues of governing after last month’s raucous rally in Arizona, and he responded by lashing out at the most senior aide in his presence.
It happened to be his new chief of staff, John F. Kelly.
Kelly, the former Marine general brought in five weeks ago as the successor to Reince Priebus, reacted calmly, but he later told other White House staff members that he had never been spoken to like that during 35 years of serving his country. In the future, he said, he would not abide such treatment, according to three people familiar with the exchange.
While Kelly has quickly brought some order to a disorganized and demoralized staff, he is fully aware of the president’s volcanic resentment about being managed, according to a dozen people close to Trump, and has tread gingerly through the minefield of Trump’s psyche. But the president has still bridled at what he perceives as being told what to do.
Like every other new sheriff in town Trump has hired to turn things around at the White House or in his presidential campaign, Kelly has gradually diminished in his appeal to his restless boss. What is different this time is that Trump, mired in self-destructive controversies and record-low approval ratings, needs Kelly more than Kelly needs him. Unlike many of the men and women eager to work for Trump over the years, the new chief of staff signed on reluctantly, more out of a sense of duty than a need for affirmation, personal enrichment or fame.
“It is inevitable that a guy who will not be contained and does not want to be handled or managed was going to rebel against the latest manager who wanted to control him,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, who believes Kelly represents a kind of management coup by “the triumvirate” of two powerful retired generals — Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — and one general who is still in the Army, the national security adviser, Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster.
“Ultimately Donald Trump is his own man, and he’s going to resist all the control and regimented systems Kelly is trying to impose,” Stone said.
For the seven months of the Trump administration, the favorite parlor game in the West Wing has been guessing how long imperiled aides like Priebus would hang on before getting fired. But these days it is Kelly’s state of mind, not Trump’s, that concerns the beleaguered aides buoyed by the new chief’s imposition of structure and clear lines of authority.
The question now is how long Kelly will stay, with estimates ranging from a month to a year at the most. White House officials say Kelly has given no indication he intends to leave anytime soon. He has thrown himself into long-term planning of the administration’s tax reform push, the president’s Asia trip in November and scheduling for the next several months, they said.
For Trump, few ingredients matter more in a staff relationship than chemistry, and at times he and Kelly — whose soldierly demeanor masks a slashing sense of humor — have enjoyed a mostly easy rapport. At commencement ceremonies at the Coast Guard Academy in May, Kelly elicited a big laugh from the president after Trump was presented with a ceremonial sword and Kelly told him that “you can use that on the press.”
Trump, who has said he has surrounded himself with former military men from “central casting,” respects Kelly, aides said. On Friday morning, in the midst of a series of tweets heralding the recovery from Hurricane Harvey, listing the great things coming from his administration and taking another jab at James Comey, the former FBI director, the president restated his public admiration for his chief of staff.
Long-serving advisers and friends remember when Trump also embraced the tighter controls imposed by Paul Manafort when he was brought on as the campaign chairman in the middle of 2016. Then they saw Trump quickly turn on him.
But in his short time at the White House, Kelly, a 67-year-old native of Boston, has had the most significant impact of any of the campaign or White House aides who have worked for Trump, according to interviews with a dozen current and former Trump aides and associates. He has regimented, as no one has ever done before, the flow of paper, people and information inundating an omnivorous and undisciplined Trump.
The president has marveled at the installation of management controls that would have been considered routine in any other White House.
“I now have time to think,” a surprised Trump has told one of his senior aides repeatedly over the last few weeks.
Kelly cannot stop Trump from binge-watching Fox News, which aides describe as the president’s primary source of information gathering. But Trump does not have a web browser on his phone, and does not use a laptop, so he was dependent on aides like Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist, to hand-deliver printouts of articles from conservative media outlets.
Now Kelly has thinned out his package of printouts so much that Trump plaintively asked a friend recently where The Daily Caller and Breitbart were.
Kelly has told his staff, time and time again, that his goal is to rationalize the chaos that has engulfed the management of the West Wing. Managing Trump is beyond his — or anyone else’s — powers, he has said repeatedly.
While Trump still reaches out to allies outside the administration — especially old friends and associates like Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign manager; Richard LeFrak, a fellow developer originally from New York; Bannon and a handful of others — more often than not it has been through the White House switchboard and not on his personal phone. And Kelly has usually listened in on the calls, according to two people with direct knowledge.
Even Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, who has unfettered access to her father, has made a point of giving Kelly a heads-up if she is going to talk to the president about policy or politics, according to one of Trump’s friends.
Kelly has his critics outside the administration, notably Stone, who has accused Kelly of keeping the president from his friends and allies. He also has critics inside the White House, who have begun to complain that their access to Kelly has been limited. But Kelly’s biggest accomplishments are ones that people outside the West Wing cannot see. When North Korea fired a missile over northern Japan last week, for example, he counseled Trump to deliver a stern rebuke he had written himself through a strong, measured — and spell-checked — statement delivered via official White House email, rather than a bombastic Twitter message.
Kelly is close to Mattis and supported the Pentagon’s decision to slow-walk Trump’s order to ban transgender troops from serving in the military, opting for the creation of a panel to study the matter before implementing a policy that is highly popular with the president’s conservative base.
Despite his crackdown on unauthorized immigrants and support for the Muslim travel ban in his previous job as Homeland Security secretary, Kelly has been among those calling for Trump to proceed with caution on rolling back Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy protecting from deportation immigrants who entered the country illegally as minors.
And he has moved swiftly to dispatch aides he deems unqualified by temperament, experience or credential with a minimum of drama and fuss. Kelly, people close to the president said, backed the removals of Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, a flame-throwing White House staff member known more for his cable TV tirades than strategic acumen, and Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived communications director who self-immolated in an expletive-filled interview with The New Yorkerin July.
The chief of staff keeps his own counsel and travels light. He brought over only a small handful of staff members from the Department of Homeland Security, and confides to an even smaller circle, which includes Leon E. Panetta, for whom he served as a top aide when Panetta was defense secretary in the Obama administration.
But how long Kelly and the president, two men with such divergent approaches to the common goal of Trump’s success, will be able to coexist is unclear.
Kelly has not been talking about it, apart from saying he is committed to stabilizing the staff in the White House.
But one associate who spoke to Kelly last month said the former commander had remarked that his current assignment was by far the hardest job he had ever had. His favorite gig, he jokes, was his first: Marine grunt.