Kelly tightens his grip on the West Wing

Kelly tightens his grip on the West Wing
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The departure of Stephen Bannon, the strategist who helped transform President Trump’s campaign into a populist juggernaut, indicates the White House is evolving rapidly under its new chief of staff, John Kelly.

Trump’s decision to shift Kelly from secretary of Homeland Security to chief of staff was widely seen as a potential turning point for the White House. Allies praised Kelly as a steady hand who could bring discipline to a team roiled by infighting, leaks and palace intrigue — conflicts that often involved Bannon. 

Bannon was shown the door on Friday, providing perhaps the strongest signal yet of Kelly’s growing clout. 

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But even though Kelly has wide latitude to enforce discipline, it’s clear that the biggest management challenge for the retired four-star general is the president himself.

In Kelly’s brief three-week tenure, Trump has publicly attacked prominent members of his own party — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFox News has covered Ocasio-Cortez more than any 2020 Dem besides Warren: analysis Durbin after reading Green New Deal: 'What in the heck is this?' Dems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle MORE (R-Ky.) — unnerved the world with aggressive rhetoric on North Korea and issued widely criticized and equivocal statements on white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va.

In a telling moment that hinted at Kelly's reported frustration with his boss, he stood with his eyes to the floor during the president’s bellicose press conference on Charlottesville on Tuesday, visibly grimacing as Trump railed about violence "on both sides."

"I don't know if he's going to be able to get the West Wing in order or not," Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), an ally of Kelly's, told The Hill in an interview conducted shortly before the announcement of Bannon’s departure. Rooney noted he has not spoken to Kelly since he became chief of staff.

White House officials say they’re fully behind Kelly and appreciate how he has imposed order without micromanaging their daily responsibilities and policy portfolios.

Staff meetings have been reduced from five times a week under his predecessor, Reince Priebus, to three times a week. The meetings are to-the-point affairs that are over in 20 minutes, officials say. 

On Capitol Hill, Kelly is seen as keeping a light touch on policy strategy for what is expected to be a bruising September for Republicans, with deadlines looming to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling.

Kelly had one other notable success before the resignation of Bannon: He was also behind the firing of controversial communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Just a few hours after becoming chief of staff, Kelly ousted “the Mooch” — ending a tumultuous stretch for the former hedge fund manager that lasted just 10 days.

But it’s Bannon’s ouster that is most indicative of Kelly’s influence. 

Bannon — who had feuded with senior advisers such as the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser H.R. McMaster — was nevertheless seen as a conduit to the president’s core supporters. His dismissal came as a shock to Bannon’s allies inside and outside the White House, who were certain that Trump would stand by his loyal chief strategist.

One senior administration official said the president had been inundated in recent days from “high-level Republican donors and activists” pleading with the president to retain him.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that Kelly and Bannon “mutually agreed” Friday would be his last day — but reporting from The Washington Post and elsewhere has suggested that the impetus was entirely Kelly’s.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), an ally of the president who earlier this week had called for Bannon’s removal, said the ouster was an opportunity for Kelly to restore order.

“Ideally, it removes the chaos and it gives John Kelly the free hand that he needs to establish a real chain of command — make sure that things run orderly and the president's policies are pursued,” King told The Hill in an interview. “And stop the leaks, stop the undermining, the backdoor deals.”

Trump was famously dismissive of Priebus, whom he reportedly called “Reincey,” and finally showed him the door in late July.

In contrast, Trump has been complimentary of Kelly, telling reporters he calls him “chief.” 

Still, the president has chafed under any attempt to corral his freewheeling style. As a result, many of the controversies that have bedeviled the Trump White House have been of the president’s own making.

"The gravamen of the problem still exists and will not be solved by personnel changes at the dysfunctional White House,” Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffPinterest blocks all vaccine-related searches in effort to combat anti-vax content Trump’s overreach is making a weaker presidency White House, GOP defend Trump emergency declaration MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement, referring to Bannon’s ouster.

King was more bullish on Kelly’s ability to help the president make good decisions.

“You're not going to have so many people coming in, making end-runs or dropping ideas on the president's desk, or whispering to him,” he said. “The president has not been in politics his entire career, so people are able to tell him things that may not be true, or steer him in the wrong direction — that's why I think it's really important to have General Kelly there.” 

King allowed that Trump had said “the wrong thing” about Charlottesville on Tuesday — during the wild and impromptu press conference in which he condemned violence "on both sides" — but insisted that the president is still “much more likely” to listen to Kelly than he was to Priebus. 

“In the end, he's the president, he needs to make his own decisions — but I think you'll see him pausing a lot more to talk to John Kelly,” King said.

Several Kelly allies in the administration have publicly split with the president over his remarks about Charlottesville, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, who on Thursday issued a statement saying there is no place for racism in the military or in America.

Onlookers think it’s unlikely that Kelly would resign, no matter how much he might disagree with the president’s rhetoric on Charlottesville. 

"If General Kelly resigns from this job, it will be the worst day in this administration — and there's been a lot of sort of questionable days,” Rooney said.

"His job number-one right now is to square away the White House so that it's running more effectively. If anybody can do it, it's him. If he can't, then I don't know who could."

Jonathan Easley and Jordan Fabian contributed.