John Kelly arrives at the White House facing the Herculean task of restoring order to a crisis-ridden presidency, and he’ll have one advantage former chief of staff Reince Priebus never did: the backing of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, senior advisers with unfettered access to the Oval Office, supported Kelly’s selection as chief of staff after losing confidence in Priebus, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Trump’s advisers and supporters are guardedly optimistic that the retired Marine Corps general can rein in a West Wing full of competing personalities who regularly sidestepped Priebus.
Kelly has been promised full authority over the president’s staff, according to two senior White House officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal personnel matters. Still, it’s unclear how that will play out within a White House where many of Trump’s aides have grown accustomed to free and easy access to the president. Lacking support from Trump, Priebus was unable to combat the infighting, unauthorized leaks and lack of message discipline that have thus far stalled the president’s agenda and frustrated Republicans in Congress.
But Kelly probably won’t have any more success than Priebus in curbing Trump’s own impulse to let his itchy Twitter finger get him off-message. He may not even try. The president has cast aside Priebus and other establishment voices in his orbit, elevating instead those like Anthony Scaramucci, his new communications director, who indulge Trump’s firm belief that to retain his base support, he must be himself.
Kelly, 67, represents a course correction after Priebus proved ineffective, said Chris Ruddy, chief executive officer of Newsmax and a Trump friend. Priebus declined to comment.
“The president is about performance. He rates everyone, including himself,” Ruddy said in an email. “After health care failing and constant leaks, I think the president made a move to hit the reset button and bring in new leadership. It was smart and decisive.”
The president on Monday said in a tweet that stock-market highs, the jobless rate, border security, his confirmed Supreme Court nominee and other economic indicators were evidence of a White House free of “chaos.”
Kelly, who was spotted at the White House over the weekend, officially begins his new job on Monday. He was sworn in ahead of the second full cabinet meeting of Trump administration, due to start at 10 a.m. in Washington.
“He will do a spectacular job,” Trump said in the Oval Office after Kelly took his oath.
White House officials have said they expect Kelly to quickly clarify the chain of command and establish rules and procedures for those seeking access to Trump. He also brings to the job a trusted adviser, Kirstjen Nielsen, his chief of staff at DHS, a White House aide said.
“Trump doesn’t really like to delegate. He likes to be accessible,” said David Cohen, who teaches political science at the University of Akron in Ohio and is writing a book about White House chiefs of staff. “The number of people who have walk-in privileges to the Oval Office is unlike anything we’ve seen in the modern presidency.”
Trump’s daughter and son-in-law have committed to work with Kelly to create more order around the president, a White House official said. While it’s unlikely that the walk-in privileges of Trump’s children will be curtailed, other senior officials may lose their direct line to the president.
While Ivanka Trump and Kushner have committed their support to Kelly, Trump’s choice, another administration official noted that their more natural allies among those floated to replace Priebus would have been economic adviser Gary Cohn or deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, from the globalist camp. Kelly, with his hardline immigration views, is seen as a choice that could be more in line with the policies promoted by chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
Trump’s allies said they hope Trump will respect Kelly enough to listen to his advice and back any moves he makes to curtail the freewheeling atmosphere around the Oval Office. If Trump doesn’t empower Kelly by making it clear that Oval Office access runs through the chief of staff, Kelly will encounter many of the same challenges that frustrated Priebus --problems that could be compounded by the four-star general’s limited experience with politics and domestic policy.
“You really can’t run a White House effectively if you don’t empower your chief of staff," Cohen said.
Events from the past week alone highlight the challenges Kelly faces.
In the past week, Trump has confounded his military leaders by tweeting out a ban on transgender service members, offended the Boy Scouts of America by delivering a politically charged speech at their jamboree and publicly humiliated Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a series of Twitter barbs. Trump’s effort to repeal Obamacare failed in the Senate early Friday, leaving him with no signature legislative achievement to show after more than six months in office.
Finally, a long-simmering feud between Priebus and Scaramucci, the founder of SkyBridge Capital who joined the White House on July 21, became an ugly public spectacle.
On Thursday night, the New Yorker magazine published on its website an account of a telephone call Scaramucci placed to writer Ryan Lizza, in which the White House communications chief unleashed a stream of vulgarities while attacking Priebus as a “paranoid schizophrenic,” and said “he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.”
Trump said Scaramucci would report directly to the president, undercutting Priebus’s already waning power in the West Wing. It isn’t clear if that arrangement will change under Kelly. Asked if Scaramucci would continue to report directly to the president or would be subordinate to Kelly, a senior White House official didn’t answer directly, only saying that Kelly now has full authority.
Another senior White House official said everyone in the West Wing will report to Kelly.
Scaramucci didn’t respond to requests for comment. Like his boss, he’s a prolific Twitter user, but he has made no public statements about Kelly’s hiring. It’s unclear how the brash financier will get along with the decorated military man.
The general could find several allies within the competing power structures of the White House.
They include Bannon, who throughout Kelly’s brief tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security, privately praised the Boston-born military leader’s effectiveness in an administration that often hasn’t functioned smoothly.
Two people close to Trump and Bannon said the latter’s position in the administration doesn’t appear to be in imminent jeopardy, even after Scaramucci was quoted as crudely criticizing Bannon -- an architect of Trump’s win in November -- in the New Yorker article for trying to build his brand off the presidency.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a supporter of Trump who’s been talked about on and off for a position in the administration, said Kelly’s brief stint at DHS showed command, strong organization, and charisma.
“If he can repeat that at the White House I think there can be a material improvement in the way the White House functions,” Giuliani said in an interview.
But Kelly’s biggest challenge may be trying to keep Trump from undercutting his own message with tweets and unfiltered commentary, including threats and digs directed at members of his own party and his own administration.
‘Fools’ and ‘Quitters’
Trump has shown no sign of a personal change in course since announcing Kelly’s appointment on Twitter on Friday. On Saturday, he intensified his criticism of GOP lawmakers, saying Republicans in the Senate would be “fools” and “total quitters” if they didn’t change their rules and make another attempt to repeal Obamacare. He also threatened via Twitter to end “BAILOUTS for Members of Congress” if a health-care bill is not passed quickly.
On “Fox News Sunday,” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Trump’s threat referred to health insurance arrangements for members of Congress and their staff under the Affordable Care Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not change Senate rules requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation, and declared it was “time to move on” after the Obamacare repeal bill failed last week -- after failing to reach a simple majority in the 100-member chamber. The White House’s deteriorating relationship with Congress is yet another headache for the incoming chief of staff.
“The situation on Capitol Hill is now worse than before with many Republicans extremely angry with the president,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “All of this will in some ways undercut his efforts to improve the situation.”