With President Trump feeling increasingly liberated from the constraints of the White House, or of normal human behavior, it was only a matter of time before affairs reached a breaking point between him and his long-suffering chief of staff, John Kelly. And that’s apparently what almost happened a few days ago.
Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports that on March 28, Kelly “blew up” at Trump in the Oval Office, and then, as he returned to his office, muttered a comment that some saw as a reference to quitting the White House. Kelly’s outburst was apparently unrelated to the firing of David Shulkin, the veteran affairs secretary, on the same day — which narrows it down to about 75 other crises he might have been stewing over.
The Washington Post reports that, according to a senior administration official, Kelly said, “I’m out of here, guys,” but was merely “venting his anger and leaving work an hour or two early to head home to decompress.”
Kelly was reportedly so upset that Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen and Defense Secretary James Mattis had to talk him down.
One recent point of contention between the president and General Kelly: Scott Pruitt. Kelly reportedly advised Trump last week to fire the ethically challenged EPA administrator, but Trump refused. This kind of presidential defiance has become more common as Trump begins to feel (scarily) comfortable in his job.
The Post’s report, which quotes 16 administration officials, hammers home a point that has become more and more clear: Kelly’s “credibility and influence have severely diminished” in the White House in recent months.
Kelly no longer lurks around the Oval Office, nor listens in on as many of the president’s calls, even with foreign leaders. He has not been fully consulted on several recent key personnel decisions. And he has lost the trust and support of some of the staff, as well as angered first lady Melania Trump, who officials said was upset over his sudden dismissal of Johnny McEntee, the president’s 27-year-old personal aide.
Kelly has long seemed on the verge of either stepping down or being fired, and, as the Post reports, he threatens to quit pretty regularly. With Trump becoming less and less dependent on him, and no less hinged, one has to think that the end can’t be too far off.
When Kelly moved from leading the Department of Homeland Security to replace Reince Priebus last summer, his morally upright reputation earned him some grudging respect from liberals, who, even if they didn’t like the man’s hard-line views on immigration, saw him as a potential bulwark between Trump and pure chaos. In some ways, Kelly made good on that promise, at least for a while. He tightened access to the Oval Office, restricted the flow of misinformation to the president, and removed interlopers like Omarosa Manigault and Anthony Scaramucci from the White House.
But, as Trump inevitably soured on these limitations, Kelly also badly damaged his own reputation with a series of comments and actions that seem to have revealed his true character. He made an extremely ignorant comment about the Civil War; blatantly lied about a congresswoman’s past comments and refused to apologize; and badly bungled the departure of White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who was accused of domestic abuse, among other missteps.
But Kelly is still nowhere near as dangerous as his boss. And there are moments, fleeting ones, when Kelly still feels like a stand-in for the majority of the country, a quasi-reasonable person trying to withstand President Trump’s wild whims while ensuring that America doesn’t implode before 2020. For a moment after Saturday’s news broke, it was easy to recall a clearly uncomfortable, very relatable Kelly hanging his head in shame his head in shame as Trump defended neo-Nazis last August.
Unfortunately, the conception of Kelly as a serious moral counterbalance to his boss is long gone. But that doesn’t mean his (probably) impending departure is good news.