Kelly's hardnose tactics vex some in West Wing

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Story highlights

  • Kelly must help navigate the growing prospect of a government shutdown
  • Kelly was hired to rein in a chaotic White House

Washington (CNN)After moving into his West Wing corner office, John Kelly, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, replaced the three large flatscreen televisions over the fireplace with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

The quiet imposed by the retired four-star Marine general presents a counterpoint to Trump and his loyalists, many of whom thrive on chaos. That stylistic collision is about to be tested as Kelly helps navigate the growing prospect of a government shutdown, even as his standing with the commander in chief is suddenly in question.
Kelly was hired to rein in a chaotic White House. And though aides were initially grateful for the sense of order he brought to the West Wing, they have recently become irked by his restrictive measures. In recent weeks, aides have increasingly protested the restrictions Kelly has placed on their access to the President. A frequent complaint is how Kelly refuses their requests to meet with Trump, preferring that all information that reaches the Oval Office is first seen by him.
    Trump spent Wednesday night fuming, furious with Kelly after he said during a television interview that the President's views on immigration and the border wall have "evolved" since he took office. Trump "hated" his comments, a source familiar with his reaction told CNN, and spent the evening calling associates to complain that Kelly portrayed him as someone who needed to be managed -- a perception Trump detests.
    The White House maintains Kelly and Trump speak multiple times a day and enjoy positive working ties.
    "He is great," Trump told reporters Thursday in Pennsylvania when asked whether his chief of staff was on the ropes. "I think General Kelly is doing a really great job. He's a very special guy."

    Conflict over immigration

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    But the conflict over Trump's immigration views put Kelly's role -- and his relationship with Trump and his staff -- in the spotlight, fueling new criticism of the discipline Kelly has sought to impose on the freewheeling West Wing.
    Andrew Bremberg, who is an assistant to the President and director of the Domestic Policy Council, has had several of his requests to meet with Trump regarding upcoming policy measures denied, a source familiar with the matter tells CNN. Gary Cohn, the White House's chief economic adviser, has too.
    "It's like President Kelly," one staffer quipped.
    White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah downplayed criticisms of Kelly's manner.
    "Part of the White House chief of staff's job is to ensure the President receives appropriate counsel from advisers on policy and other important matters. He doesn't restrict access to the President among those who need to see the President," he said.
    Several officials tell CNN they are considering leaving the administration because morale is so diminished and hasn't improved in the six months Kelly has been in control, saying that one of the perks of working long hours in a chaotic environment is spending time with the President, which is no longer an option.
    Kelly has a brusk manner with staff -- not a surprise for a Boston-reared retired Marine, but sometimes off-putting to aides who mostly come from politics and the private sector. Efforts by some officials to include an array of views in meetings have been "streamrolled," one official said.
    That's been most apparent in the immigration debate, which Kelly has approached from a hardline perspective in the hopes of channeling his boss.
    Sen. Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican whose rollercoaster relationship with Trump has been a subject of Washington fascination over the past year, said Thursday that Kelly's negotiating abilities were lacking.
    "I don't think John Kelly's irrational. I think he's never closed a deal before," Graham said in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash.
    It was Kelly's idea to ban personal cell phones from the White House, people familiar with the matter said, generating fresh resentments among aides. Staffers were exasperated when they learned that they would not be allowed to have their personal devices in the West Wing from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday through Friday, with many questioning how they were expected to stay in touch with the outside world while often working 12-hour days.

    Retaining support

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    Kelly still retains the support of the most stalwart Trump aides, including members of the President's family, sources say. And Trump himself, however frustrated at being restricted in his meetings, understands that because he empowered Kelly to make changes he must accept some of the consequences.
    But Trump's acclaim for his chief of staff on Thursday doesn't necessarily mean Kelly is in the clear. The President has been known to offer glowing praise of his subordinates only to dismiss them shortly afterward.
    There has been little evidence -- until now -- of daylight between Trump and Kelly, and almost no one close to the President believes his anger at Kelly will be lasting. Kelly has been extremely careful to avoid giving the impression that he is somehow managing Trump -- which people close to him say is a conscious effort. In both public and private, Kelly has been careful to downplay any impression that he's "stabilizing" or "moderating" Trump, even if, in reality, his advice and management have that effect.
    "General Kelly's strict style is one of the things keeping the place going," one senior White House official said, maintaining that his discipline is essential for the chaotic Trump presidency.
    Though the Oval Office once was abuzz with visitors who dropped by unannounced, those who want to speak to the President now must go through Kelly first, and Trump has privately complained that he has found out people tried to reach him only to be denied by Kelly.
    Since he officially replaced Reince Priebus in late July, Kelly began screening all of the President's incoming calls on the White House switchboard. Kelly makes the ultimate decision of whether that person should talk to the President, and either patches them through or declines their request, according to an administration official.
    According to one White House staffer, there has been some grumbling among longtime Trump confidants that they have had a difficult time reaching him -- even through official channels -- since Kelly became chief of staff.
    Trump has vented frustrations over his lack of access to those who are close to him. As a private businessman, presidential candidate, and new president, Trump grew accustomed to consulting a wide orbit of friends and advisers in late-night phone calls.
    But when Kelly leaves his West Wing office at the end of his long days at work, the President remains in the White House residence, where the operator can connect him to whomever he would like.