Politics

John Kelly Out as White House Chief of Staff, Trump Says

Nick Ayers, VP Pence’s chief of staff, is leading candidate for job

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a White House briefing on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

President Donald Trump said Saturday White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will leave his post at the end of the year, concluding a rocky tenure during which he clashed with his boss.

“A great guy,” Trump said of the retired Marine Corps general as he left the White House for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia.

“We’ll be announcing who will be taking John’s place” in the next few days, Trump added.

Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff is rumored to be the leading candidate to replace Kelly. The departure of the man White House aides refer to as “General Kelly” is a major victory for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president's daughter and son-in-law, who both are senior White House aides. Both had clashed with Kelly, who drastically scaled back Kushner's policy portfolio.

Trump soon will have his third chief of staff in under two years in office. In a January 2012 tweet, Trump wrote this of then-President Barack Obama: “3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @BarackObama can't manage to pass his agenda.”

His chief of staff turnover is merely one example of how Trump has made moves in office that he sharply criticized his predecessors for their similar actions.

Kelly’s coming exit shows, yet again, how individuals with power and influence outside the Trump orbit can enter it even in senior positions but clash with the president's family and be ousted.

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Another reversal

The move is yet another reversal for the president, who had his staff announce earlier this year — after a previous round of Kelly departure rumors — that the retired Marine four-star general would stay in his post through Trump’s 2020 re-election bid. 

But Trump reportedly grew testy with his staff in the days following the Republicans’ loss of the House and seats at the state level in the midterm elections. Their boss let his frustrations show on Twitter, using a six-hour flight to Paris on No. 9 to go on an extended rant about his domestic political foes even after telling reporters that morning he was focused on “the world.”

His bad mood continued on Saturday, as he appeared visibly sullen during a one-on-one meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and then when he canceled a visit to a cemetery where 1,800 U.S. troops who died in World War I are buried. The president on Tuesday blamed the Secret Service, in a rare admonishing of the agents that keep him — and his family — safe.

Trump has made no secret of his desire to make staff and Cabinet changes, describing in plain words his expectation that just about everyone will depart his administration at some point.

Trump in recent months has signaled he was poised to carry out something of a purge of his Cabinet and his West Wing senior staff following the midterm elections. That began  when he used a tweet on Nov. 7 to announce Attorney General Jeff Sessions was out. 

Kelly is the latest Cabinet official or senior White House staffer to exit Trump’s ever-changing roster of advisers and department heads. But he brushes off any notion that his staff has had more turnover than other administrations, even though the data suggests it does.

“People leave,” Trump said during a rowdy 90-minute press conference just hours before Sessions resignation at his behest was announced in a tweet.

“And I’ll tell you, there will be changes. Nothing monumental from that standpoint. I don’t think very much different than most administrations,” Trump said. “We have many people lined up for every single position. Any position.

“Everybody wants to work in this White House. We are a hot country. This is a hot White House,” the president contended. “We are a White House that people want to work with.”

Tense relationship

There long had been reports of tensions between Trump and Kelly - typically walked back by one or both within a few days. That did not happen this time, however.

Kelly had previously been Homeland Security secretary, and his move to the West Wing did bring some order to what had been a disorganized and chaotic operation. But it also installed an immigration hardliner just steps from the Oval Office — with walk-in privileges, which he cut off for many senior advisers. He also pared the portfolios of daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both senior advisers to Trump.

But Kelly never viewed the job as trying to manage the president, which allowed Trump to at times continue stepping on the White House’s intended messages. And he could not completely keep the entire staff on a short enough leash to prevent damaging insider accounts from making it into the media. 

On April 30, for instance, a report citing eight former or current White House staffers surfaced that Kelly once called Trump an “idiot” and had frequently questioned the chief executive’s intelligence in front of other staffers. The White House pushed back against the NBC News report with force, with Kelly calling it “total BS” in a statement released shortly after the article was published online.

“I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship,” Kelly said. “He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS. I am committed to the president, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a day later denied speculation that Trump might shift Kelly, to the corner office at Veterans’ Affairs.

The president reportedly had grown increasingly irritated with Cabinet officials and senior aides who too often disagreed with or pushed back on his whims or policy stances — both of which can shift quicker than the wind. In recent months, it was clear he and Kelly were not on the same “wavelength.”

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Kelly’s exit only fuels a turnover rate that Brookings Institution has concluded is higher than the previous five presidents. 

Kelly was first rumored to be on his way out in February his handling of a domestic abuse scandal involving former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter. Kelly pressed Porter, to whom he had come to rely and grew close, to step down after images surfaced of his first wife with a black eye she contends he gave her.

Kelly defended Porter multiple times over a day and half after the first reports, including the photograph, emerged. But that wasn’t what annoyed the president: Kelly acknowledged he knew about the abuse allegations — but not the photo — months before the allegations went public. He did not tell Trump, who blames Kelly for not avoiding another major scandal.

Since, Kelly has shifted the timeline for when Porter resigned and described different chains of events on how he handled the matter.

What’s more, Kelly has led negotiations with lawmakers but failed to deliver the president the immigration deal he believes would be a major legislative feat. And then there was Trump’s mounting feeling that Kelly was trying to over-manage him.

In the end, it was all too much for Kelly to overcome.

The president often liked to flex his muscles and remind the general who was in charge. For instance, on the evening of Jan. 24 Kelly informed Trump he had a group of reporters waiting in his office for a chat about the White House’s immigration overhaul plan. About four minutes into the session, however, Trump popped in.

“How’s he doing?” Trump asked the reporters in a tone that was one part joking and one part mocking. “Okay?”

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