John Kelly: A General’s General
Trump’s White House Gatekeeper
It was one of those rare Washington moments that streak across the sky like a comet and then burn out as quickly as it came. Such moments often do not receive the attention they deserve, but they can speak volumes amidst the rush of events.
Chief of Staff John Kelly’s brief appearance in the White House briefing room late last week was one of those moments. It provided more insight into the actual workings of the Trump administration than the millions of words spilled in the print and broadcast media since Kelly took command barely two months ago.
Kelly’s appearance was filled with candor, irony, and a rare sense of humor, a stark departure from the snarky give-and-take that dominates the daily press briefings. All of Kelly’s self confidence and ease with himself was on full display. Throughout he showed the humility fitting to a leader accustomed to his place in a strict hierarchy of command.
Kelly had the assembled press corps in the palm of his hand from the outset. Playing on their need for instant news, Kelly told the press that as far as he knew he had nothing startling to tell him. “Unless things change,” he said, “I’m not quitting, I’m not getting fired, and I don’t think I’ll fire anyone tomorrow.”
He said that much of what he sees in the press is not true. He knocked down the flood of stories about White House conflict. He put the Chief of Staff job in perspective in relation to his long and distinguished military career, saying that the White House position was the most important and the hardest job he has ever had, but did not compare to his service as an enlisted Marine sergeant infantrymen. “That was the best job I ever had,” Kelly said.
The key moment in the Kelly press briefing came when a reporter asked one of those open-ended questions designed to uncover White House friction and intrigue.
Q: Peel back the curtain for us since you’re in a first-row vantage point with the President. What are his frustrations right now?
GENERAL KELLY: One of his frustrations is you.
Q: Me personally?
GENERAL KELLY: All of you. Not all of you, but many of you. As I said when I first started talking — again, I’m a reasonable guy, but when I read in the morning — I read the — well, I won’t tell you what I read — but when I watch TV in the morning, it is astounding to me how much is misreported. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are operating off of contacts, leaks, whatever you call them. But I would just offer to you the advice: I would say maybe develop some better sources. Some person that works way down inside an office, or — well, just develop some better sources.
In this one response Kelly summarized the attitude and behavior of an overly hostile national press determined to damage and even destroy the Trump presidency. Almost nothing the public sees in the press on a daily basis reflects the accomplishments of an administration that was elected to reverse the course of the previous administration and finally address the needs and desires of an electorate that felt voiceless, betrayed, and forgotten.
Kelly also radiated the aura of a man who is quietly and confidently executing the job of Chief of Staff in precisely the manner for which he was chosen and in a way that best serves the President. Without self aggrandizement and personal promotion, Kelly has calmed a raucous White House once riddled with rumor, gossip, and backbiting.
He sent the message on the first day he took charge when he fired Anthony Scaramucci, the remarkably tone deaf communications director. Within weeks he drove the point home again with the dismissal of Steve Bannon, the chief strategist with too much independence. Although both obviously were let go at Trump’s direction, the moves made it clear that Kelly was in charge.
Trump’s close association with Kelly is no accident. The President is comfortable with successful men and women. His national security team, made up of Mattis at the Pentagon, McMaster at the National Security Council, Tillerson at State, and Pompeo at the CIA, is one of the strongest in decades. His cabinet officers, notably at the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Commerce, and Education, all are strong individuals with their own records of achievement.
Now the President and Kelly face their greatest challenge, working with an unruly Congress to show accomplishments before the election year of 2018 stalls the White House agenda. Health care and tax reform are unresolved, to say nothing of looming conflicts over the federal budget and debt ceiling. The Trump administration’s fiercest enemy is the calendar.
Nevertheless, Trump has found focus and discipline in the White House staff under John Kelly. He is a true professional, a general’s general.
During the course of his career, Walker has worked in Chicago, Washington DC, New York City, and Phoenix. He served as a reporter in Chicago, a press secretary and speechwriter in Washington, and in numerous positions in New York in corporate and financial services communications.
Walker is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.