President Donald Trump’s newly installed chief of staff, former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, was supposed to bring some semblance of order to the West Wing. By Thursday morning, however, the White House remained engulfed in mayhem, driven largely by the president’s refusal to unequivocally condemn Nazis, and a “rogue” Steve Bannon interview that appeared in a liberal political magazine on the evening prior.
White House officials and other sources who have spoken with Kelly since he took the job told The Daily Beast that he expected his stint would be mentally and emotionally taxing. He was prepared to grapple with the backbiting and the chaos that permeated the White House. And he was well aware of the president’s impulsiveness—including the serial hate-tweeting.
Still, these sources say, Kelly has found the gig vexing.
Kelly was floored, as are many of his fellow staffers, by Trump’s unexpectedly shambolic detour into loudly defending Nazis and white-supremacist agitators. It really “threw [Kelly] for a loop,” one senior White House official told The Daily Beast.
At the now-infamous press conference on Tuesday, where Trump insisted that some of the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, were “very fine people,” Kelly looked on stoically before his head drooped down on to his chest. He notably winced on occasion.
Another White House official, when asked by The Daily Beast what Kelly’s current mood or state of mind is, would only say, “bad.”
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss internal drama.
Kelly has managed to make some small material gains while serving as chief of staff. The disorganized open-door process that marked former chief of staff Reince Priebus’ tenure is now gone. In its place, aides say, is more order and clearer lines of demarcation and responsibility. Kelly also commands the respect of many inside the West Wing, as well as Trump-critics outside of it. They fault the president, not him, for the continued chaos.
“I had no respect for Kenosha, who greased the wheels for Trump to become the GOP nominee and was only concerned with his own standing with Trump,” Ohio Governor John Kasich’s top strategist, John Weaver, said. Kenosha is Priebus’ home town. “I have tremendous respect for the life and honor of General Kelly. Having said that, nothing is going to change because at the end of the day Trump is unfit to be president. Unfit.”
Despite his efforts to manage around it, Kelly is beginning to grapple with that unfitness. In an early morning tweetstorm on Thursday, the president attacked Republican senators Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and explicitly endorsed a primary challenger to the latter. At a time when his legislative agenda is stalled, GOP Hill aides were shocked at the president’s eagerness to piss off his own party’s lawmakers.
It didn’t end there, though. Later in the morning, Trump offered a full-throated defense for Confederate monuments, tweeting that it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues.”
White House aides say it was never expected that Kelly would be able to control Trump’s penchant for and love of Twitter. But the fires that the chief of staff has been forced to put have extended well beyond 140-character presidential missives.
On Wednesday night, The American Prospect, a progressive publication, posted an interview with Steve Bannon, in which Trump’s embattled chief strategist undermined Trump’s position on North Korea, knocked the racist alt-right as “losers” and “clowns,” discussed how the right can “crush the Democrats” when liberals talk about “race and identity,” and spoke of how he takes on his enemies in the Trump administration such as economic adviser Gary Cohn.
Why Bannon granted the interview has been the topic of much speculation, both inside and out of the White House. Multiple Bannon allies and colleagues reached by The Daily Beast on Wednesday night and Thursday morning said they were convinced he thought he was off the record. Bannon has since told the Daily Mail that the interview “drew fire away” from Trump, and thus a net positive.
When asked by The Daily Beast on late Wednesday night if he cared to comment further on the Prospect interview, Bannon simply replied, on the record, “No.”
In recent weeks, Kelly has been keeping a close eye on Bannon, who several other senior administration officials (including his ideological allies) have accused of being a major source of smears, leaks, and bitter infighting.
But it seems likely that Trump’s top strategist is increasingly going “rogue,” as another White House official described, creating yet another issue that the chief of staff has to mind. The Daily Beast could not find a single White House spokesperson who knew that Bannon’s interview was coming. And when asked if she knew Bannon would be venting to The American Prospect, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told The Daily Beast that she would “circle back” on Wednesday.
As of Thursday morning, she hadn’t, despite repeated inquiries.