White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has lost significant influence with President Trump, according to several sources within Trump’s orbit.
Those sources tell that Trump has proven increasingly resistant to the discipline that Kelly has sought to impose on the White House since he took over from Reince Priebus last summer.
One former administration official said that Kelly had “ruled the West Wing with an iron fist” during the first six months of his tenure but added, “I don’t think that is the case any longer.”
A difference source within Trump’s orbit said, “John, I think, is frustrated because his influence has been diminished and he cannot control what the president does.”
As examples of Trump chafing at his chief of staff, insiders cite some off-the-cuff policy pronouncements from the president that seemed aimed, at least in part, at demonstrating defiance of Kelly.
They also point to personnel changes that have weakened Kelly’s position internally. Like minded figures such as national security advisor H.R. McMaster are on the way out. Kelly is said to have limited input or influence over new arrivals such as McMaster’s replacement John Bolton or Larry Kudlow, who is replacing Gary Cohn as chief economic advisor.
Two sources also said Kelly had been championing Mercedes Schlapp for the position of communications director recently vacated by Hope Hicks. The fact that he has not, so far, won that battle is asserted to be another example of his diminished clout.
In the telling of several sources among a half-dozen who spoke to , the president’s willingness to follow his instincts has risen to greater heights than ever in recent weeks.
“Now Trump isn’t talking to Kelly about this stuff anymore — ‘what is your opinion on the Syria issue?’ — because what the president is becoming more comfortable with is his intuition, his gut. That’s what is driving him,” said the source within Trump’s orbit.
Confusion has reigned over precisely what the administration’s policy is on Syria since Trump announced last week — to the apparent surprise of senior members of his staff — that he wanted the U.S. out of the war-torn nation “very soon.” He made the remark during a speech in Ohio that was mainly about infrastructure.
This week, Trump reiterated during a Tuesday news conference with the leaders of three Baltic nations that, “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. … It’s time.”
But those statements came in the wake of a January statement from then-secretary of State Rex Tillerson that “it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria.” The Associated Press has reported that Trump signed off on that speech.
A Wednesday statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought, with limited success, to clarify the situation.
Referring to the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Sanders said that “the military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end.”
But she added that, “the United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated.”
Reflecting the confusion, some news outlets emphasized Trump drawing down in Syria, while others contended that he was walking back his earlier pledge by declining to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Either way, sources told that the to-ing and fro-ing was anathema to Kelly, a retired Marine general.
Kelly is in little immediate danger of being fired, but there are growing questions about how long he will be willing to endure the current situation, where his advice can be disregarded and his sensibilities defied.
One GOP operative went so far as to say that Kelly is “gone in fact, if not in title.”
But Kelly still has allies on staff and in the wider Trump world.
Those allies insist that enemies with agendas are greatly exaggerating the possibility of Kelly’s demise, in part in the hope of restoring their own access to Trump.
The pro-Kelly voices also raise eyebrows at why, if the chief of staff is so weakened, his critics are only willing to speak under cover of anonymity.
“People say he restricts the information flow, but his job is not controlling the president,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump friend. “I don’t know why people are saying this, but I know they are saying it off the record, which tells you all you need to know about their courage.”
Barry Bennett, a senior advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, wryly noted that, “no one has ever restrained Donald Trump.”
He also pushed back at the idea that Kelly is a diminished presence.
“I don’t think John Kelly is less powerful. Everybody still reports to him. The president is always going to be the same guy he was — he likes being in control. But I don’t think that is any measure of John Kelly.”
Even if that is so, however, it is common knowledge that Kelly sought to clean house when he was first appointed. Chief strategist Steve Bannon departed soon after he arrived, as did former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault-Newman, who served as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.
Numerous sources noted that Kelly’s broader efforts to limit the number of people who had access to the president sat uneasily with the way Trump had managed his business empire for decades.
Some expressed sympathy with Kelly’s instincts to impose order on the unruly atmosphere that had festered during Priebus’s time as chief of staff.
“Early on — typically, in any administration — you would have less than 10 people with walk-in rights,” said a source who worked closely with Trump’s transition team. With Trump “even from the get-go, there were maybe 30 people with walk-in rights, because he wanted to have the same structure he had in the Trump Organization.”
This source added, “from a government perspective, that seems to create a bit of a chaotic environment. You need them to focus.”
Bennett, the former campaign advisor, argued that Trump’s understands someone needs to do the kind of job that is now Kelly’s.
“I guarantee you that Donald Trump wants nothing to do with the daily management of all those people — department heads and others. Donald Trump is very happy that John Kelly is doing all of that. But people who think that he can tell Donald Trump not to tweet? That’s foolish.”
Still, others insist that Trump needs a more free flowing atmosphere than Kelly is willing to provide.
The two are on a collision course, they say — and it will end badly sooner or later.
“What [Trump] has expressed is missing the opportunity to interact with individuals,” the source within Trump’s orbit said. “All these stories of the White House in chaos are missing the point.
“To him, it is stagnation because he is getting his information now from two or three people. He is used to being inundated with people all day long.”
“He doesn’t see that as chaos,” the source said — before adding that when Trump contemplates the current, more buttoned-down atmosphere “he sees it as a morgue.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.