Lawmakers from both parties, concerned that John F. Kelly has too often added to the White House chaos he was hired to tamp down, want the chief of staff to revert to managing President Donald Trump’s administration far away from the television cameras.
The retired Marine Corps four-star general and former Homeland Security secretary views his new job as that of an ultimate insider, according to senior White House aides who report to him. But in recent weeks, Kelly has at times taken on a different role — combative spokesman for the president. And that has only created more heartburn for the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
In Kelly’s handling of Trump’s feud with Democratic Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida over comments the president made to a soldier’s widow, some lawmakers saw a career military man stumbling in the political world.
Others were surprised by Kelly’s headline-grabbing forays in front of the cameras, first in the White House briefing room and then in a major television interview.
But GOP and Democratic members are united in offering Kelly this advice: Stay behind the scenes and focus on making a White House known for its tumult run a little quieter and a lot smoother. Members give the chief of staff high marks for doing just that during his first two months or so on the job, but said they are concerned that the maelstrom has returned in recent weeks.
“Listen, I have great respect for Gen. Kelly,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who as a member of the Armed Services Committee worked with Kelly for years. “But just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to share it.”
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the Armed Services panel’s top Democrat, called it a “huge transition from a career military officer to a spokesperson for the president.” Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, spent eight years in active duty and 12 in the reserves.
“I think his most effective role is behind the scenes, getting the right information to the president and keeping everything on schedule. It’s a very challenging role,” Reed said. “The first several months he was doing a remarkable job because he was getting the trains to run on time. If he can do that, he’ll make a huge contribution to the country.”
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a former member of the House Democratic leadership team, warned that Kelly is “putting his reputation increasingly at risk by being the frontman for the president.”
“The problem is the president continues to make these outrageous comments. He hasn’t been able to stop them,” Van Hollen said of Kelly. “Now, he’s sent out to clean up the mess. … But his public statements have been really problematic.”
A willing spokesman
Kelly appeared eager — or at least willing — to speak publicly on Trump’s behalf last month. Kelly conducted the Oct. 12 daily White House press briefing on his own, appearing comfortable in the spotlight and making no major gaffes as he teased and verbally jousted with reporters while answering their questions.
The White House decided seven days later to deploy the retired Marine again during the Trump-Wilson controversy. This time, Kelly’s performance was uneven, as he sharply blasted the congresswoman instead of trying to defuse tensions as four military families were laying to rest fallen U.S. troops.
“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday — and brokenhearted — when I saw what a member of Congress was doing,” he said of Wilson’s assertion that Trump told a widow that her husband “knew what he was signing up for” but his death likely hurt the family regardless.
“The only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men or women on this earth,” Kelly told reporters, referring to Arlington National Cemetery. What’s more, at the end of that Oct. 19 briefing, Kelly said he would take questions only from reporters who knew Gold Star families, using the term for immediate family members of military personnel killed in the line of duty.
Then came last Monday, when Kelly sat down for a one-on-one interview with Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham. The White House chief of staff said the Civil War occurred not because of deep differences over slavery, but because the North and South failed to compromise.
In a week when White House officials wanted to focus their message on the GOP tax overhaul push and Trump’s Asia trip, they instead were inundated with questions about Kelly.
Tuesday’s press briefing ended when Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked four times if the White House believes slavery was wrong. She didn’t answer and left the briefing room. (She has since called the suggestion that anyone in the White House supports slavery “disgusting and absurd.”)
But Kelly’s Civil War interpretation drew widespread criticism.
“The real Gen. Kelly is a Trump ‘Mini Me’ in a uniform,” said one former Clinton administration official, arguing Kelly’s time as Homeland Security secretary and recent comments as chief of staff show he holds some of the same hard-line views on immigration and other issues as his boss.
Center of attention
By his own definition, the former Marine Corps four-star general and Homeland Security secretary sees his role as controlling not the often unpredictable Trump but “the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions.”
That includes giving Trump advice or finding those who can, as well as helping the president “consume advice” and make decisions, Kelly said during the Oct. 12 briefing. “But that’s my job and that’s what I do.”
Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland said Kelly seems to have misstepped while trying to “manage his boss, who, as we’ve seen, needs a lot of management.”
“Your chief of staff runs your everyday operations,” said Ruppersberger, a former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “When you’re in a political situation and you’re not used to the politics, you should think a little more. … And it doesn’t help his boss any.”
But Trump’s demeanor might make it hard for the man senior White House aides call “Chief of Staff Gen. Kelly” to return to a behind-the-scenes role. Even when Kelly is offstage, his boss — who often refers to retired and active-duty senior military officers working for him as “my generals” — is fond of bringing attention to him.
“You know, I have a great Marine here: Gen. Kelly, four-star,” Trump said Sunday while addressing U.S. military personnel in Japan. “Where’s Gen. Kelly? He is something. Now, he’s chief of staff. But he does like those four stars — I want to tell you that.”