New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly flexes muscle on first day

John Kelly officially takes over as White House Chief of Staff on Monday, tasked with bringing a more disciplined approach to a freewheeling White House.
US President Donald Trump (right) meets with John Kelly, his new chief of staff, in the Oval Office of the White House.
US President Donald Trump (right) meets with John Kelly, his new chief of staff, in the Oval Office of the White House.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES) - United States President Donald Trump fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci on Monday (July 31) at the urging of new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a clear sign that the retired Marine general is being empowered to manage what has been an unwieldy West Wing operation.

Mr Kelly demanded Mr Scaramucci's departure after he attacked former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus in a profanity-laced interview last week that quickly became a public symbol of the vicious infighting that has helped define the first months of the administration.

Mr Trump's willingness to dismiss Mr Scaramucci - whom he hired just 10 days earlier - was viewed by many in the West Wing as an indication that he is eager to impose order and is giving Mr Kelly the tools to do so.

"General Kelly has the full authority to operate within the White House, and all staff will report to him," said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Left unclear is whether Mr Kelly will be able to curb the President's inclination to subvert pecking orders, his tendency to encourage rivalries among his staff and his insistence on managing his own message through social media in ways that have often undermined his aides' strategic planning.

"This is a president that loves feedback and information, and he doesn't like getting it through a chain of command," said Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media. "I don't think that's going to change."

 
 
 

But Mr Kelly's arrival signals that Mr Trump is putting his confidence in someone he perceives to have the stature and experience to be a forceful leader in a White House characterised by competing power centres.

Despite his desire for discipline, it took only hours on Monday (July 31) for Mr Kelly to face his first White House leak, and it was about him. CNN reported that Mr Kelly had been so upset about the president’s firing of James Comey as FBI director in May that he called Mr Comey to say he was considering resigning, an account that was confirmed by a former law enforcement official who was told of the conversation.

Mr Kelly resisted the president’s entreaties to take over for Mr Priebus during the past several weeks. After his appointment was announced on Friday, he met with Mr Trump and demanded assurances that he would wield the usual sweeping authority over personnel, the flow of information and access to the Oval Office that chiefs of staff have traditionally been given.

In early morning staff meetings at the White House on Monday, Mr Kelly made it clear that the president had agreed to let him impose more discipline over what had been an unruly and inefficient decision-making and communications process under Mr Priebus, who had none of Mr Kelly’s experience in government or the military.

Mr Kelly also made it clear that everyone in the staff – including chief strategist Steve Bannon, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner – would clear policy proposals, personnel recommendations and advice from outsiders through him.

After swearing in Mr Kelly to his role during an Oval Office ceremony, Mr Trump treated him to the formalities typically reserved for visiting heads of state. As the two sat shoulder to shoulder in armchairs for the benefit of cameras, Mr Trump leaned in and effusively praised Mr Kelly, who previously served as Mr Trump's homeland security secretary. He later lavished more praise on him during a Cabinet meeting.

"I predict that General Kelly will go down, in terms of the position of chief of staff, as one of the greatest ever," the President said. "We all know him, we respect him, admire what he's done."

Mr Priebus was viewed inside the White House as being ineffective and having little control over other top aides, and the President had mused for months about replacing him. In one of the strongest indications that Mr Kelly will have greater authority than his predecessor, Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner - both of whom advocated for Mr Kelly to be hired - have expressed their willingness to support any structural changes Mr Kelly might make, according to a White House official. Ms Sanders confirmed that they, too, will report to Mr Kelly, as will all other officials.

A Kelly-led senior staff meeting on Monday morning was well received, said people close to the White House who described aides as feeling optimistic that he might create stability in the West Wing.

"He's an adult and a disciplinarian," said Mr Barry Bennett, who was a Trump campaign adviser. "He walks in with respect. I don't think people will go to war with him." But Mr Kelly is planning to bring at least one senior adviser from the Department of Homeland Security with him to the White House. There are signs that these new hires may be met with a chilly reception, two people familiar with the matter said, raising questions about who will hold influence in a White House overloaded with aides competing for influence.

The White House has, for months, been dominated by warring factions, including a New York-based wing led by Ms Trump and Mr Kushner, establishment Republicans, and Trump-allied conservatives inside and outside the administration, among them chief strategist Stephen Bannon.

Ms Trump and Mr Kushner were instrumental in bringing Mr Scaramucci into the White House, in large part to oust Mr Priebus, who led the establishment wing. After Mr Scaramucci's explosive interview with the New Yorker, in which he angrily accused Mr Priebus in vulgar terms of leaking to the media, they soured on him and were supportive of Mr Kelly's efforts to oust him.

Over the weekend, Mr Kelly told associates that he was dismayed by Mr Scaramucci's interview and found it abhorrent and embarrassing for the President. Removing him from the communications post is part of an effort to change the culture of the White House and to signal to staff that their comments reflect on the President.

"This was the President showing General Kelly that he's in charge and he has the ball and this has fingerprints of a clear sign that people need to fall in line," said Mr Blain Rethmeier, who helped Mr Kelly with his confirmation process earlier this year after he was nominated to lead the Homeland Security Department. "One thing you'll see is a new level of discipline and respect restored."

The move comes as the White House is trying to jump-start the President's stagnant agenda and focus lawmakers and supporters on passing tax cuts. Earlier on Monday, three top administration officials, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and legislative director Marc Short, each said they planned to press aggressively for the tax plan, which Mr Trump considers a centrepiece of his domestic agenda.

Shortly after Mr Kelly was sworn in, Mr Trump presided over a Cabinet meeting in which Mr Cohn said the White House is focused primarily on how to push the tax overhaul through Congress. Meanwhile, Mr Short called on conservatives to pressure Senate Democrats in competitive states such as Indiana and North Dakota to support their plan. Mr Mnuchin said the White House would be willing to jettison numerous unspecified tax breaks to make up for some of the revenue the government would lose by lowering tax rates.

While the administration has not been able to move forward on priorities such as tax reform, overhauling the healthcare system and spending on infrastructure projects, Mr Trump's tenure has been dominated by investigations of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether any members of his campaign colluded with Moscow.

The President and top aides have blamed the White House communications operation for not doing a better job of pushing back against the Russia story and promoting his agenda - a situation Mr Trump has often made more difficult with his statements on Twitter.

No other post in the White House has experienced as much upheaval as the communications director job. It was first given to Mr Jason Miller, a Trump campaign aide who stepped down during the transition. It was then given to Republican operative Michael Dubke, who resigned in May. In the intervening weeks, Mr Sean Spicer had taken on those responsibilities in addition to his role as press secretary until Mr Scaramucci was named to the position.

Mr Scaramucci's tenure led to upheaval in the West Wing from the start, with Mr Spicer resigning rather than working with the New York financier. Within days of entering the White House, Mr Scaramucci threatened to stop White House leaks by firing "everyone" in the press office until the unauthorised disclosures ended.

Quickly, however, his feud with Mr Priebus became his main focus. Mr Scaramucci had, at one point, described their relationship as being like "brothers". Later, he clarified that they were like Cain and Abel, two biblical brothers whose tumultuous relationship ended in tragedy. Cain murdered Abel, and was punished by God and condemned to a life of wandering.

When the New Yorker published Mr Scaramucci's profane tirade against Mr Priebus and vulgar criticism of Mr Bannon, he found himself on the defensive.

But it was Mr Priebus who was let go on Friday, making it look as though Mr Scaramucci had won their power struggle. It was a short-lived victory.

On Monday, Ms Sanders said Mr Trump thinks Mr Scaramucci's comments last week went too far."The President certainly felt that Anthony's comments were inappropriate for a person in that position," she said.

For the time being, the White House may leave the communications director post open, said a person close to the internal discussions about the job, though Mr Kelly has the latitude from Mr Trump to fill the post with someone from the Department of Homeland Security.

Two perennial candidates to fill the post are Ms Kellyanne Conway, a White House senior adviser and the president’s former campaign manager, and Mr Jason Miller, who held the communications post during the campaign. Mr Trump has long wanted to bring Mr Miller, who serves as an informal adviser, into the administration. 

Mr Trump was eager on Monday to move beyond the criticism that his six months in office have been marked by tumult and dysfunction.

Early in the day, he tweeted that there is no "chaos" in his White House.

Late in the evening as the dust settled on the latest staff turnover, he tweeted: "A great day at the White House!"