As Reince Priebus was approaching his final days in the West Wing, staffers had a running joke: if you got between the frenzied chief of staff and the Oval Office, you risked being run over as he darted from meeting to meeting, hoping to force himself into President Donald Trump’s good graces.
John Kelly, who now finds his standing in the White House similarly fractured, has adopted a different approach. Sources inside the West Wing say Kelly has attempted no such effort to insert himself into the President’s daily interactions. Now less engaged in West Wing decisions and less visible in Trump’s day-to-day, Kelly has found himself on a downward slide, sources familiar with the situation said.
Though Kelly used to hold senior staff meetings in his office three times a week, the chief of staff has reduced those to one per week, preferring instead to hold smaller meetings with fewer staffers throughout the day, a source with knowledge of the meetings tells CNN.
Kelly was initially expected to quiet a chaotic West Wing by instilling order and restraining an impulsive President. But his limited influence has been on full display in recent weeks as Trump has shown himself more unleashed than ever. Just this week, he lashed out at the special counsel, his attorney general and his deputy attorney general as part of a larger outburst during a meeting with senior military officials that was supposed to focus on his administration’s response to Syria.
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, was horrified at the highly charged display, according to one person familiar with his reaction.
Trump’s erratic behavior hasn’t waned. He promised a missile strike on Syria Tuesday morning before a final decision had even been made.
Ironically, the chaos he was brought in to quell may serve to bolster Kelly’s standing. Even as Trump has considered overhauling his staff, including weighing whether Kelly should go, various crises have served to put off the decision.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said it was “just not accurate” that Kelly had been sidelined.
“I have seen him in nearly every meeting and several one on ones with (Trump),” Sanders said.
But Trump has nonetheless ensured that other staffers are empowered as Kelly’s influence wanes.
National Economic Council chairman Larry Kudlow and national security adviser John Bolton entered their posts as favorites of Trump’s from afar: he watched their appearances, respectively, on CNBC and Fox News, and consulted with them over the telephone, even before they were brought onto his staff.
Now that their advice and counsel is at his constant disposal, Trump has sought them out more than Kelly, who has been left out of key decisions and is no longer regularly consulted about policy decisions.
Trump singled out his new hires on Twitter Wednesday morning.
“So much Fake News about what is going on in the White House,” he wrote. “Very calm and calculated with a big focus on open and fair trade with China, the coming North Korea meeting and, of course, the vicious gas attack in Syria. Feels great to have Bolton & Larry K on board.”
After The Washington Post reported last week that Kelly’s role as the White House disciplinarian had faded, Trump lambasted the story, calling it a hit job. But he didn’t go any further than that to express confidence in his once-favored chief of staff.
Kelly himself has appeared to second guess his own standing in the West Wing, and was frustrated after CNN reported in March that Trump had emboldened his former communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who was fired by Kelly after just 10 days, to continue attacking him during cable news appearances.
Trump views his new staffers as mini-executives, with wide unilateral prerogative for their own areas of focus, according to two senior administration officials. He has given them wide leeway to hire who they like and dismiss those they don’t, the official said.
The changes were already evident three days into Bolton’s tenure. He has overseen the dismissals of spokesman Michael Anton, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, and Nadia Schadlow, the deputy national security adviser for strategy. Other top NSC aides who worked in the office of former national security adviser H.R. McMaster departed before Bolton arrived on Friday.
White House officials said that kind of turnover was only natural for the incoming Bolton, who will want his own team around him as he prepares Trump for an intensive month of diplomacy, including potential talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But inside the NSC, the churn has led to a sense of anxiety. Top officials are uncertain of their standing and are scrambling to maintain a sense of continuity in the policies and initiatives that were already underway, according to people familiar with the matter.
Kudlow, meanwhile, has largely maintained the staff recruited by his predecessor Gary Cohn. He has indicated to NEC aides that he’s not eyeing a complete overhaul of the office. But he’s held out the possibility of replacing certain key staffers with his own selections.
Trump’s willingness to allow his new team wide latitude to make staffing decisions reflects his style as chief executive of the Trump Organization, where different divisions were headed and run by trusted confidants, including his children, who all reported to him.
In the past months, Trump has been counseled by some friends that structuring the White House in a similar fashion might suit his style better than tasking all oversight to a single chief of staff. Trump has not ruled that out should Kelly leave the White House, though there are no indications his departure is imminent.
And there are signs that however Trump may favor his new team, his penchant for surprising aides with impromptu announcements won’t end.
Last week, Kudlow admitted that he didn’t have a long heads-up that Trump would threaten new tariffs on China, escalating a tit-for-tat battle that could turn into a trade war. Asked in front of a crowd of reporters the morning after when he first learned of the tariff threat, Kudlow took a long pause before conceding: “Last evening.”