President Donald Trump’s choice of a general as chief of staff has quickly brought more order to the White House and is giving the president more time to ponder decisions as he tries to bounce back from a rocky six months with no major legislative achievements.
But John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general with an intimidating air, still has many challenges to confront to stem the chaos that has raged at the White House since Trump took office in January, not least the Republican president’s freewheeling style.
Trump, who attended a military prep school growing up, is said to be pleased at the increased discipline that Kelly has brought in since taking over for Reince Priebus, who struggled to maintain order and was often ignored by senior staff.
“He is feeling like he’s getting more time to read the materials and have substantive discussions and talk about the decisions he’s making,” said a White House official who asked not to be identified. “Before, he was carrying a lot himself. It feels now like there is more burden-sharing around. He has more trust and confidence in Kelly.”
Aides said Kelly, who previously was running the Department of Homeland Security and who began work at his new post Monday, was commanding respect in the West Wing.
“Kelly is scary in a way that Reince wasn’t,” an administration official said.
Senior staff meetings are well-attended and no longer considered optional as they were under Priebus. Typically, anyone who goes into the Oval Office to see Trump makes sure Kelly knows.
“I think you’ve seen less backbiting,” said Ken Duberstein, who was a chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. “I think the idea that he is asserting that the White House cannot be a freewheeling place but rather there is a chain of command, and things go in an orderly process, are all major steps in the right direction.”
So far, Kelly has not stopped leaks to reporters that have infuriated Trump.
On Thursday, The Washington Post published transcripts of Trump’s sometimes fraught calls in the early days of his presidency with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Kelly has not reined in the president himself, and it is by no means clear he will try to do so.
Confidants say Trump is still speed-dialing people in the evenings, as he has done for decades. He is still firing off bombastic tweets, like one on Thursday blaming the Republican-controlled Congress for what he called an all-time low in relations with Russia because it piled on more sanctions.
But Trump did stay on message at a rally in West Virginia on Thursday night, reading from a teleprompter and sticking to the script.
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said time will tell whether Kelly can reform any of the habits Trump has displayed during the first six months in office.
“He’ll have some of the smartest people around him and they’re not there to change him but to make him better. Even Tom Brady needs a coach,” said Bennett, referring to the highly successful New England Patriots quarterback.
Trump’s friends said there is value to letting Trump be Trump, particularly since Priebus’ attempt to shape Trump into a more traditional president failed spectacularly.
“Kelly can go too far in the other direction. Donald Trump doesn’t need a baby sitter. He’s his own man,” said one friend. “I understand the attitude of the military types that if they can control all information flow, they can control the president. But the first time he learns something that he should have heard from staff, there will be hell to pay.”
Dealing with Congress
Trump has yet to notch a major legislative win, and Kelly has scant experience with lawmakers. In the mid-1990s he served as the Marine Corps commandant’s liaison officer to the U.S. House of Representatives.
So far his appointment is being welcomed on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers had grown weary of the chaos at the White House.
Many were heartened to see one of Kelly’s first acts was to jettison Anthony Scaramucci as communications director after his foul-mouthed tirade against Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Kelly “is going to bring such an air of calm,” said Senator David Perdue, a Georgia Republican and early supporter of Trump’s election campaign. “This man has been through a career of providing results and showing leadership.”
Kelly is seen as likely to form a partnership with two other retired generals in Trump’s inner circle, Defense Secretary James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
The three attended a meeting of top national security aides Thursday in the White House Situation Room aimed at settling on a strategy for Afghanistan that Trump, who tends to be noninterventionist, will find acceptable.
Whether they will be able to overcome his doubts about sending 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan is unclear. “I think he likes the snap and efficiency. But I seriously question whether any of them share his noninterventionist worldview,” the friend said.