National News

Remarks on Wall Unsettle an Alliance of Alphas

Posted January 18, 2018 11:37 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2018 11:42 p.m. EST

The one thing sure to make President Donald Trump angry, as anyone who has ever worked closely with him knows, is any suggestion that his staff is managing him.

Yet early Wednesday evening, after learning from a White House aide that his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, had described his views about his signature, base-pleasing campaign pledge to build a wall on the Mexico border as “not informed,” and his thinking as “evolving,” the president was initially calm.

It didn’t last. By Wednesday night, Trump had become convinced by a string of allies and friends he had talked to on the phone that Kelly had undermined him, according to people familiar with the conversations. And by Thursday morning, after digesting accounts of Kelly’s comments on cable news, the president was riled up.

As the television blared, he typed out a series of tweets that rebutted Kelly without actually naming him. “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” Trump wrote at 6:15 a.m. Later in the morning, the president spoke to his chief of staff, and made his displeasure clear, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

The reaction was familiar to veterans of Trump’s campaign and his White House. But that kind of conflict has played out infrequently since Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff in July. For different reasons, both Kelly and Trump have an interest in preserving their relationship, according to people close to both men.

Still, the public airing of grievances was perhaps an inevitable clash between two temperamentally similar but philosophically different alpha males who for almost six months have been nearly inseparable despite lacking any previous relationship to speak of.

Some view the relationship as dysfunctional. When a president’s chief of staff speaks to members of Congress, it should be a “consistent message,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said in an interview with CNN. The inconsistency, said Cuellar, who attended the meeting Wednesday where Kelly made some of his remarks, “makes it hard” to negotiate.

Both Trump and Kelly are used to being in charge, and both are prone to dramatic outbursts of temper, according to interviews with a half-dozen White House officials. Both have a tendency to say different things to different audiences, and Kelly is more strident about the need to restrict immigration than some people had realized.

They depart over management philosophy: Trump favors chaos, and Kelly believes in strict command and control. And while Trump believes in his abilities as a salesman, Kelly is unused to being thrust in front of the national political spotlight.

Many members of Congress, like Cuellar, had expected Kelly to be a force for stability in a White House that has at times seemed consumed with dysfunction, but have found a different reality.

“He brought some order to the chaos that was there, but it’s a long way from a functioning White House,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said in an interview for “The Daily,” a New York Times podcast. “His role from time to time I’ve considered to be destructive, sometimes constructive. I wonder, you know, if he really is the man I thought he was when I voted for him as secretary of DHS.”

Durbin, who has clashed with Trump over his assertion that the president used a vulgar term in an immigration meeting last week, was referring to the Department of Homeland Security, which Kelly led before taking his current position.

Kelly has made little secret of the fact that he never wanted to be White House chief of staff and took the job out of the same sense of duty that led him to a four-decade career in the Marines.

In the West Wing, Kelly seldom allows the staff to forget the dynamic, according to people who have observed him, often positioning himself as a one-man check against dangerous or reckless moves by the commander-in-chief. His loyalty is not to the president, “but to the Constitution and the country,” he has said, according to two people with direct knowledge of his remarks.

Kelly, officials say, has made a conscious decision not to focus as much on curbing the president’s penchant for tweeting or saying inflammatory things, and to instead pour his efforts into controlling who sees and talks to Trump and trying to shape his thinking on key issues.

“I have said many times I was not put in this job to change the way the president of the United States does business,” he said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday. “I was put in the job to make sure the staff process better informs him on a range of issues.”

“Let Trump be Trump,” one White House official said Thursday, summarizing Kelly’s approach to managing the president’s behavior. One senior administration official called it a “blind spot.”

Kelly has had successes at bringing tighter control and implementing systems in a chaotic White House, removing disruptive and seemingly immovable staff members such as Omarosa Manigault Newman, and overseeing the process of pushing a tax bill through Congress. Early in his tenure, Kelly frequently threatened to quit as a way of getting people, particularly the president, to follow his orders, according to four people close to Trump. One adviser to the president said that it was among the few weapons in Kelly’s arsenal, and another said that he used it less regularly now. Kelly has denied in the past to The New York Times that he ever threatened to quit.

But he has been known to storm out of meetings or briefings if they take a direction he doesn’t like, other advisers said. He has repeatedly barked at senior advisers who have conversations with Trump that Kelly did not authorize.

Some White House officials believe that Kelly has been hurt by the extraordinarily high expectations many had that he would bring discipline and moderation to a freewheeling White House that had previously empowered the most extreme voices. His inability to do that has left some staff members demoralized.

Others describe themselves as feeling safer, particularly compared to the period when Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were constantly at war using damaging leaks. And nearly all say that Kelly has brought a semblance of order to a White House in which people during the first weeks of the Trump presidency wandered through without appointments, dropping things off for the president or showing up in the Oval Office unannounced.

But many at the White House say that Kelly has benefited too much from the constant comparison to Priebus, who was never empowered, and that morale has grown worse in the nearly six months that Kelly has had the job.

This is partly a result of exhaustion, and many staff members interviewed for this article said they were beginning a second year at the White House with less a sense of excitement and purpose than dread. Some aides also say that for weeks Trump has been fielding complaints from allies and staff members about the strictures Kelly has placed on access to the president and his enforcement of a chain of command.

Kelly has been unable to fill a number of White House jobs, and talented and capable people who understand Trump are in short supply. Kelly has told colleagues he is untroubled by most of the departures. But people have warned the president that he faces a staff exodus among senior officials, who are worn down by a year in the White House and dismayed that the work environment has not gotten better, according to three people familiar with those conversations.

Yet some of Trump’s longest-serving aides are said to work well with Kelly. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, has repeatedly praised him. And Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who had at one point considered leaving, has told the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and others that he likes Kelly and would stay if he remains, two people close to the White House said.

Kelly told Fox News on Wednesday that he planned to do just that.

“I am in this for the long haul,” Kelly said. “It is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. Because if the administration fails, if the president of the United States is uninformed one time and makes the wrong decision, that’s on me.”