the white house

My Private Oval Office Press Conference With Donald Trump, Mike Pence, John Kelly, and Mike Pompeo

The president really wanted to convince me that he isn’t going to fire his chief of staff, John Kelly. He didn’t — but, wow…

“I haven’t been to Washington my whole life. Probably never slept over. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States,” Trump said. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Around 12:20 p.m. on Tuesday, I was on my way out of the White House after a series of meetings in the West Wing. I was reporting on a question that has hung over this administration for months: How has Chief of Staff John Kelly managed to keep his job in spite of convincing and persistent rumors and reports that the president is unhappy with him, and he is unhappy in his job? I stopped to talk to another reporter, and then I began to walk toward the North Gate. As I walked, I noticed I had a missed call from a Washington number I didn’t recognize. It was Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She sounded very serious. She asked me if I had left yet. When I said no, she asked me to come back inside, and when she greeted me, she looked very serious. She implied she wanted me to go with her behind a door. I didn’t understand, maybe didn’t quite hear her. Then, she told me Trump wanted to speak to me.

I walked to the Oval Office. I guessed that the president wanted to disabuse me of any notion that Kelly was about to be fired, or had almost been fired many times before. I was right, but my imagination was too limited. What ensued amounted to a private press conference — featuring a series of special guest stars from the highest echelon of the Trump administration — to try to get me to change my mind.

“I just heard that you were doing a story on … this stuff,” the president said as he came into the Oval Office and sat down at the Resolute Desk. I sat in a chair across from him. Next to me were Sanders and communications director Bill Shine.

“General Kelly’s doing a very good job,” Trump told me. “We have a very good relationship. The White House is running very, very smoothly. We’ve had a big week. We just got a Supreme Court justice on the bench. We have the USMCA, meaning the NAFTA replacement, and many other things. We had a great meeting with North Korea. It was a great meeting. The secretary of State’s coming just in ten minutes.”

He went on, “But I want to tell you a couple of things: the chief is doing a very good job. I’m very happy with him, we have a very good relationship, number one. Number two, I didn’t offer anybody else the job. I didn’t talk to anybody about the job. And I’m not, I’m not looking. Now, look, with time, do people leave? As an example, Nikki Haley told me six months ago, even a year ago — but six months ago, that, you know, she’s been governor, she’s done this, she’s helped us with the campaign, a lot of good things, and you probably saw the conference. It was a very, very positive thing. We have a very positive story going on at the White House. We have a very positive story for the country. We’re doing a great job. We have the greatest economy in the history of our country. We have among the greatest job numbers. Among many groups, we have the greatest job numbers. We have things going on that are phenomenal on trade. China wants to make a deal — I said, you’re not ready yet. But they wanna make a deal, and at some point we might. Iran wants to make a deal. They all wanna make a deal. We have great things going. We have a very smooth-running organization even though it’s never reported that way. So the real story is that. It’s really the real story. When you walk in here, you don’t see chaos. There is no chaos. The media likes to portray chaos. There’s no chaos. I’m leaving for Iowa in a little while. We’re doing something that’s going to be very exciting tonight in Iowa. A big, a big announcement, actually. Doing four rallies this week. I think the rallies have, frankly, built up our poll numbers very greatly. What am I now in Rasmussen? 52?”

The question was directed at Sanders, who confirmed the number. [Note: The Rasmussen poll had Trump at 51 percent.]

“Plus there’s 10 percent, they think, where people don’t respond, unfortunately. I’m not sure if this is nice or not nice, but when they don’t respond, that means it’s an automatic Trump vote. But it’s a 52,” Trump said, “and we’re doing very well in the polls. You see what’s happening with respect to the election, I mean, you know, to the midterms, even though — I know — historically, the president, you don’t tend to do so well in the midterms, but we have, this is a different presidency and this is the greatest economy ever. So, we’ll have to test that. But even the polls are saying that we have really come a long way in the last three weeks. I think we’re gonna do well. And that’s all I have to say. I want to just tell you that I’m very happy with General Kelly and I get along very well with him. We have a very good relationship. And if we didn’t, I wouldn’t stand for it for a minute, and he wouldn’t want it any other way. So it’s just a different narrative than what you were saying. And with that, you’re gonna have to write what you have to write, but the truth is, we have a really smooth-running White House and nothing and nobody has done more in their first two years as president. We’re not even up to the second year.”

The president craned his neck slightly upward, in the direction of the door. “Could you give me the list, please?” he asked, raising his voice so a secretary could hear. “I’ve gotta give you the list. Nobody has come close to doing what we’ve done in less than two years as president. Whether it’s regulations or tax cuts or so many other things.” The secretary walked into the room, holding two sheets of computer paper. “Give that to Olivia,” Trump said. “These are just some of the things that were done since taking office,” he told me. The pages were stamped with 58 bullet points, typed in a large font. At the top, underlined, bold, and all-caps, it read, “TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” On the first page, the points related mostly to jobs numbers or executive orders or promises from the tax-reform bill. On the second page, there were more puzzling accomplishments like, “Republicans want STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME. Democrats want OPEN BORDERS which equals MASSIVE CRIME.”

“So,” Trump went on, “it would be great to have an accurately written story, because we do have — when you walk in here, I think you see, if you read something, it’s totally different than the fact.”

I asked Trump to explain how the White House was different with Kelly as chief of staff. “He’s a four-star marine. He is a man who likes to see order and discipline, which I like. We came in and it was more free-rolling. We did a lot! We did a lot during the entire period. But I think there is great order now.” He claimed that this has never been a point of frustration, as has often been reported. “No, I like it. I like order. I like it both ways! Honestly, I’ve had it both ways. I’ve had it both ways in my life and in my business, and sometimes freewheeling is a very good thing. You know, it’s not a bad thing. We did a lot. If you look at the first six months, we did a lot.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, squinting his eyes in the direction of the papers I was holding. “You can take a look at some of the things on the list. Some of that was done early. Look at the pipelines. That was done early. A lot of great job-producing events. A lot of regulation cutting, we did tremendous regulation cuts. That was all done pretty early. So what I’m saying— and this is not even updated. We have achieved a lot in the last month and a half, two months, since that’s been done. But we’ve done a really great job and it’s so reported by those that are, by those that want it to be accurately reported. And I think, at least, I should be able — because I know you’re gonna go in and write something — at least I should be able to tell you, out of respect, that the relationships are very good and I think you could say, Sarah, that the relationships in the White House have been very good, especially over the last six months, seven months. It’s been very, very smooth. It’s been a very smooth-running White House.” Sanders agreed.

Often, before an official departs his orbit, Trump publicly remarks that he’s very fond of them. I began to ask Trump how he expected me to believe his relationship with Kelly was so good, given that fact, when he cut in. “Well, I made changes. For instance, secretary of State, I put somebody in that I wanted. And it’s really working out very well — he’s done a very fantastic job. Mike Pompeo, Mike Pompeo. But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t doing a good job before, whether the relationships were good or not good. But I wanted to make a change and I made a change.”

I completed asking the question about staffers who had been ousted in the past despite assurances from Trump that all was well.

“Like who?” Trump asked. I offered Steve Bannon as an example. He asked if I’d seen Bannon on television lately, which I had. “Well, I saw Steve Bannon, haven’t spoken to Steve Bannon in a year. But I saw Steve Bannon on television twice in the last month and— General! Come here a moment!”

Kelly had appeared in the room, a wary expression on his face, which resembles a cross between Wallace Shawn and Woody Harrelson. Kelly’s military service began in 1970 and over the decades took him around the world. He’d served in Belgium and he’d overseen U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq and operations across 32 countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. It seems silly to think that such a person would ever give a fuck about anything related to matters of palace intrigue in this White House. Had he known we’d be discussing this? Had the president ordered him to be here? Was it all a coincidence? It is a small place, in fairness. Nobody tells you that before you visit. It’s like it was built for elves. It’s possible he had just been walking by. But if that was the case, the president’s repeated comments about how serendipitous all of this was made it feel like a big production.

“This is Olivia, she’s going to say very, very wonderful things about you. This is General Kelly,” Trump said.

“Come in, Mike!”

Closely behind Kelly was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was scheduled for a 12:30 lunch with the president.

“Olivia can write badly about you,” Trump told him. The men laughed at the president’s joke.

“Stay there for a second. I just wanted to see Olivia for two seconds,” Trump said. “Look, look who comes in, and we actually have lunch today,” Trump said.

I jokingly asked if I was invited to the lunch. “Anytime you want,” Trump said. Kelly, who was sitting down near me across from the president’s desk, remarked, “Best French fries in the world.”

Trump didn’t acknowledge him. “But Bannon,” he said, picking up the conversation where we’d left off, “if you’ve seen Bannon on shows over the last month …” He briefly went off the record.

“Look who you have here,” he said. He glanced toward the entryway again. “Look who you have here. We had a meeting scheduled!”

Vice-President Mike Pence walked into the room.

“This is Olivia. She’s a disruptive writer but that’s okay,” Trump told him. He laughed.

This was beginning to feel ridiculous, like this was the reunion episode of a sitcom, in which Bob Saget might come out next to an applause track.

I explained to the president that my point was not about Bannon specifically, but that generally, he’s made it difficult to believe what he says about whether or not he is going to keep a member of the staff around. Trump replied that he has good relationships, asking if I could name anyone who “speaks bad about me on the record.”

“People that are off the record — I think it doesn’t even exist. I think writers make it up,” he said. “Generally, generally. Not in all cases, but generally.”

“Well, you’ve cited anonymous sources before,” I said. “Were they made up?”

He didn’t respond. Instead, he said, “I say this: we have a really great White House. We have a really successful White House. We have — I call it a well-oiled machine. It’s ruled with tremendous people. And if you remember, you heard my story, when I got elected — I haven’t been to Washington my whole life, very rarely, probably never slept over. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. I didn’t know a lot of people in Washington. Now I know everybody that I want to know, a lot of people. And I bring changes, and those changes have been great changes. One of them over there.” He nodded in the direction of Pompeo, who was sitting behind me on the couch.

I wanted to know if he was really happy here, or if he misses New York.

“I love it. I think it’s great. Do I like it? Do I like the work? I love it. I actually really love it. Do you know why I love it? One simple reason, because nobody has accomplished as much in so short a period of time.” (Later he would, somewhat wistfully, remark that he once lived near New York Magazine’s former offices in midtown Manhattan.)

“How are you measuring that, exactly?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “See the list that’s in your hand?”

“But are you comparing it to a similar list from previous administrations?” I asked.

“No, I’m saying in the first two years of a president, and we’re not even at two years, nobody has come close to it. No one. Take a look. I mean, you take a look, and nobody has come close. So, I heard you’re gonna do a nasty story …”

I laughed. “Well, but it was,” Trump said. “And at least I should say, I never— one of your things was that I offered Nick, that man right there, a job. I didn’t. He just walked in!”

I turned around to see Nick Ayers, the vice-president’s chief of staff. “I told her that,” Ayers said.

One of the leads I was pursuing was a rumor that Trump had, at various times during Kelly’s tenure, offered the chief-of-staff job to other people in the White House, including Ayers. I had put that specific question to several officials, citing a specific date and location for one of the meetings in which I understood the job had been discussed in late June, just before the publication of a Wall Street Journal story that named Ayers, along with the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, as would-be Kelly replacements.

Trump looked back at me. “He has a good relationship with the general. I didn’t offer Nick the job. I mean, I’m telling you in front. Now, you can write that I did. But now, you have him, you have me, and I didn’t offer him a job and he didn’t accept a job. And there was no offer!”

I asked if he’d met with Ayers in the residence to have a conversation about the job. “No. No! He’s been in the residence, but the only time I can remember him being in the residence is with Mike. He’s Mike’s guy. And I would never offer him something without speaking to Mike. I don’t do that. I don’t take people from people …” He paused for a beat. “Even though I guess I can,” he said, his tone even. Everyone laughed. “There’s no reason to do it though, so your narrative is wrong. It’s just amazing. We’re all having lunch and it’s so great that you’re all here. This was not set up.”

I joked that it seemed very spontaneous.

“When he says I didn’t offer him a job. When he says I didn’t, and when I didn’t, it’s just a false narrative. And I have a very good relationship with him,” he glanced to my right, where Kelly was sitting. “And if I didn’t, I’d have no problem, I’d say, ‘John, time to go.’ But you know what? I’m very happy with him. He’s happy with me.”

“Have you ever had an argument in which you have …” I began to say.

Trump cut in. “I argue with everyone,” he said. The room erupted with laughter. “Except Pompeo,” Trump said, his face contorting in surprise. “I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo!”

“Stand by!” Pompeo said. “Stand by!” Trump said. “The day is young,” Pence said.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders cut in. “Let’s make this the last question,” she said.

Trump went on, “I’m not sure I’ve had an argument with Mike!” In this case, he meant his vice-president.

I asked Trump if he was worried as he looked forward, about the midterms and about the Mueller investigation.

“Well, the Mueller investigation, if anything, it’s showing that the Democrats colluded with Russia and others. And it’s showing there’s no collusion from me. There never was. And yes, I’m very satisfied with the way that’s going. It’s a process. I’m very satisfied. I consider it to be an illegal investigation. It should’ve never been called. But is there anything there? Nothing. There’s no collusion. There is no collusion. By the way, I don’t know if you heard, [North Carolina senator] Richard Burr just came out, he said, ‘No, we have found no collusion.’ He’s a judge at the Senate committee. [Note: Burr is chair of Senate Intelligence Committee.] And you know, Nunes and all of them, Congressman Nunes came out and said there’s no collusion. So, you have two committees that spent much more than a year on this and they have found no collusion. Richard Burr just made the statement, just very recently. He said: ‘I found no collusion.’ You know why? Because there is no collusion. And they only interviewed, like, hundreds — I mean, the number of people is, like, incredible. The money that’s been spent is incredible. They’ve found no collusion. So, as far as other things are concerned, I think we’re just doing great. Yes, am I concerned about the election? I’d rather win elections. I’ve never lost an election in my life, okay? You know that, right? I’ve run one time. It was for the presidency. I actually had a senator come in and say, ‘Mr. President, I’ve been a senator for 24 years. Sir, I think this is the way you should do it.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve just been a president for two years. It’s the only time I ever ran for office.’ He said, ‘You know, that’s one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever seen and I’ve been doing this a long time.’ It is sort of interesting.”

Like his last three predecessors, Trump’s presidency began with majorities in the House and Senate. If Republicans lose control of a chamber, not only will it be more difficult for the president to achieve his policy goals, but it will place impeachment on the table. During my reporting, the subject of whether Kelly was the right person to deal with the worst-case scenario came up often. I’d heard there was interest in having someone with more practical political experience and relationships on Capitol Hill in the job. “It is amazing that the least political person in Washington, D.C., has the most political job in Washington, D.C.,” a former White House official told me. “Kelly has the political instincts of my grandmother.”

Trump went on, “But I’ve only run one election, and I’ve won. But we have an election coming up, I think we’re going to do well. I think, on the Senate side, we’re looking very strong. In fact we’re getting numbers in that, Olivia, races that people said six months ago we wouldn’t even challenge, we could win. Or do very well. You know, either way we’ll do very well. I won’t name senators because I’m not looking to embarrass anybody or have somebody say, Oh, gee, you’re wrong. But there are races for the Senate that really weren’t going to be in play. I mean, one would be Heidi [Heitkamp]. I would say Heidi was not really in play and now I just see that she’s down, supposedly, 14, 12 to 14, 10 to 14 points. I don’t know. Maybe she’ll do very well … But we’ll see what happens. I think the Senate looks very good. In the House, I think it looks like we have a good chance of doing okay.”

I asked if he’d discussed, among his staff, what to do in the worst-case scenario.

“No, no, I don’t discuss it. If we don’t do okay, I think we’ll be in great shape. And if we do okay, I think we’re gonna do very well in the Senate, and I think we’re gonna do much— here’s the thing, I’ve given you, and without the regulations and without the taxes, I’ve given you the greatest economy in the history of our country or, at a minimum, close. Four-point-two percent? Nobody thought that was even possible this early. You know, we’re talking about early. Jobs numbers, production numbers, everything up. Confidence levels, everything. I think we’re gonna do very well in the elections. If we don’t, we’ll do very well, we’ll find a way to do very well.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders cut in, but Trump said he had time for another question.

“You’re saying that the narratives about your White House and your staff are false, but why do …” I began. Trump interrupted, asking me to speak louder. “Have you been told that you speak very softly?” he asked.

“You were saying that the narratives about your White House and your staff are incorrect. Why do they …” I began. Trump interrupted, saying that was not true “among everybody,” just “some people.” He went on, “I’ll be honest, I think Fox has covered it very accurately. They say, you know, we are producers. We produce like very few people anywhere produce. So, others don’t cover it as accurately.”

I asked why he believed non–Fox News narratives persisted. Why, for example, were there so many questions about his relationship with Kelly?

“Because you were gonna write a bad story about the relationship. I have a good relationship.” He looked over at Kelly. “Uh, general, what do you think of the president?” he asked.

“He’s a great president,” Kelly said. “Do we disagree sometimes? We do. My job is to make sure that that man has all of the information available from whatever source so that he makes the best decision, and then, when that decision is made, my job is to then implement that decision. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no chaos in this building. We’ve gotten rid of a few bad actors, but everyone works very, very well together. The biggest surprise when we bring new people in, like Bill Shine, it’s like, ‘I thought this place was gonna be full of backstabbers and chaos and, Chief, people all like each other.’ To the best of my knowledge …”

A smile spread across the president’s face. Cutting Kelly off, he said, “Bill was actually a little disappointed.” This prompted laughter around the room, but not from Kelly. “He thought it would be a lot more exciting,” Trump added.

“… So that’s why,” Kelly said. “With all due respect to you, people like you listen to people that I’ve had to let go, and they continue to report about chaos and this type of thing. The president of the United States is who I serve, right after the people of the United States and the Constitution, and right now this president is well served, not just by me, but by an entire White House staff.”

With that, everyone rose, except for Pence, who was standing the whole time, hovering near my chair across from the president’s desk.

“I respect you,” Trump told me. “I just wanted you to get the real picture. The timing was incredible. This was like, it was like …”

“We had a lunch plan,” Pence said.

“Is that a correct statement? This was just, like, perfect timing,” Trump said.

There are nearly 1,000 results from the last 14 months for the paired terms “John Kelly” and “fired” in the news database Nexis. As soon as he entered the building, the guessing about his inevitable exit began, as did the leaks that his new colleagues (or the outsiders whose influence he’d thwarted) hoped they could push him out the door. But the longer he stayed, the more doubts emerged that had less to do with palace intrigue — Kelly’s rules are suffocating the president; Kelly wants to send Jared and Ivanka home — and more with Kelly’s actions. In February, members of the staff were disappointed with Kelly’s handling of the scandal involving Rob Porter, the president’s staff secretary who’d been accused of abuse by his two ex-wives. “Not only did he lie, he tried to get everybody else to lie,” one former White House official told me. “People had deferred to him because he was a four-star Marine general, served his country, Gold Star father — all of these things that made you think, What a patriotic upstanding American serving his country! I viewed him as this giant, four-star general, everything that goes along with that. He’s very petty. He’s a small man.”

There’s always chatter about who could replace Kelly. This has been unchanged by the White House’s decision to claim that Trump has asked him to remain in the job through 2020. Trying to predict the outcome is a fool’s errand. Trump’s decision-making style is such that, up until the moment something begins happening, you can’t trust that it’ll happen. “Dumb luck” was the phrase one administration official used to explain Kelly’s endurance. The president can only focus his anger or frustrations for so long before he moves onto the next thing. Meaning, if someone is plotting to get rid of Kelly, convincing the president to concentrate on the idea that he’s a problem matters more than whether or not he actually is a problem. This is where Kelly is helped by the fact that his enemies are even more inept than they believe he is. “When the president says, I need you to leave, Kelly just ignores him,” the administration official said. “I think the president just doesn’t know who to call to fire him. Normally if the president wanted to fire somebody, he would call Kelly to do it. But there’s nobody else to call.”

As I turned to follow Sanders and Shine out of the room, someone said, “Hey, Olivia.” I turned toward the room again to see Kelly and Ayers entwined, their arms stretched around each other and their faces pressed close together. They smiled theatrically. “This is my friend,” Kelly said.

“Yes, and he’s mine,” Ayers said. “And I told her that. She knows that.”