The Memo: Putin furor sparks new questions on Kelly’s future

The future of White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE is the subject of growing speculation, amid the firestorm over President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE’s recent behavior toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Voices sympathetic to Kelly wonder how much longer he will endure a position that he has come to find deeply frustrating.


Kelly critics say the latest episode shows the chief of staff no longer has enough political capital with Trump to be an effective voice of restraint. His counsel, they say, is simply not heeded.

One source within Trump’s orbit rated the chances of an imminent Kelly departure at “80 percent.”

Some Trump loyalists were particularly enraged by a Vanity Fair report published Tuesday evening that asserted Kelly had encouraged congressional Republicans to publicly criticize the president after his disastrous joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki on Monday.

A report in the New York Times the following day said that Kelly prompted other Republicans to speak to the president, though it did not suggest he wanted them to go public.

The source in Trump’s orbit insisted the president’s esteem for Kelly has fallen to the extent that he is more likely to defy him than defer to him.

“[Kelly] started hammering him, saying, ‘We have to fix it,’ ” even as the president’s plane was returning from the Putin summit, this source said. “But John’s stock is so low that Trump disregards Kelly’s advice out of spite. [Trump] didn’t fully recognize the problem, and that’s why it took so long for the walk back.”

Kelly allies dispute that narrative.

They note there are a number of people around Trump who have axes to grind with Kelly, in some instances because he fired them or their friends, and in other instances because he curtailed their access to Trump.

But even among the pro-Kelly camp there is an acknowledgement that the travails of serving in the Trump White House have worn on the retired Marine Corps general.

“I think there is a misconception that Gen. Kelly can control the president or can fix all the problems that many people see with this administration,” said Blain Rethmeier, a Kelly ally.

“As administrations evolve, some things work well and other things might not work so well,” Rethmeier added. “As long as Gen. Kelly believes he is able to benefit the American people, then I think he will remain.”

Exactly how long that will be is anyone’s guess.

It has been widely reported that Kelly has said his game plan is to stay in his post for one year. He is within two weeks of that milestone, having been sworn in on July 31, 2017. 

There are real questions as to whether Kelly has the appetite to extend his tenure much longer.

One longstanding Kelly ally, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, noted the chief of staff’s decorated military career contrasts with a near-total lack of political experience.

“I don’t think he was prepared for the amount of politics and the backstabbing and the leaking that happens. It happens in any White House, and in this White House to the nth degree,” this source said. “I don’t know how anyone from his background can cope with that.” 

As for the experience of dealing with Trump himself, this source added, even Kelly was not fully prepared for what was awaiting him when he took the job.

“I’m not sure he knew,” this source said. “I don’t think he had seen completely behind the curtain at that point. He certainly has now."

Few people contest that Kelly’s control over the White House has diminished over time. But there are conflicting accounts over the quality of his relationship with Trump.

For all the talk about him being headed for the exits, he continues to be seen at the president’s side frequently — including in Helsinki and other stops on Trump’s recent European trip.

Kelly’s imminent departure has been wrongly predicted over and over again — virtually since he took the job.

One former administration official said he had expected Kelly to be preparing to leave by now, but had recently begun to doubt if he would do so.

This source also noted that, for all the abrasiveness of his public persona, Trump sometimes keeps people on his staff for some time even after his loyalty to them dissipates. This person cited Kelly’s predecessor as chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusTrump adviser says president will give Biden 'a little bit more room to explain himself' at next debate Priebus expecting Trump win in election that will go 'down to the wire' Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE, as well as former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOcasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Gary Cohn: 'I haven't made up my mind' on vote for president in November Kushner says 'Alice in Wonderland' describes Trump presidency: Woodward book MORE, among the examples.

“Whenever there is a countdown clock in Trump World, one thing you can always take to the bank is that the countdown clock will be extended,” the former official said. 

The source within Trump’s orbit contended that Kelly must also cope with a familiar Trump trait — the president’s tendency to become gradually less enthused about aides the longer they remain in their posts.

Kelly’s capital with the president was at its highest when he first took the job, but he has subsequently been supplanted by new arrivals. Right now, former Fox News executive Bill Shine — who recently joined as deputy chief of staff for communications — is seen as the new golden boy.

“Bill Shine is the new guy in the building and he is the guy Trump talks to,” the source said.

Rethmeier, meanwhile, insisted that “aside from what is constantly being reported, I think [Kelly] maintains a strong relationship with the president.”

Among backers of Kelly, one issue is raised above all others: the idea that however exasperating the experience of working at the Trump White House can sometimes be, things would be much worse if Kelly and others of his ilk were not there.

“I am thankful — and I think that all Americans should be thankful — every day that people like John Kelly and [Homeland Security Secretary] Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenWatchdog finds top DOJ officials were 'driving force' behind Trump's child separation policy: NYT More than million in DHS contracts awarded to firm of acting secretary's wife: report DHS IG won't investigate after watchdog said Wolf, Cuccinelli appointments violated law MORE and  [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis and [Secretary of State] Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware Trump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel MORE are willing to serve,” said one such Kelly supporter, Thad Bingel. “And we should all be concerned if people like them were not in the administration.”

On Thursday afternoon, further tremors rippled through Washington with the news that Trump had asked national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to visit the nation’s capital in the fall.

With moves like that underway, there are serious questions about whether Kelly will stay around for much longer. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.