Alternate headline: White House Source Knows How to Get Rid of Trump Officials. The Associated Press reports today that John Kelly presaged his tenure as White House chief of staff a month ago by demanding a private meeting with Donald Trump over immigration policy. Their source says that “raised voices” seeped through the Oval Office door, and when the then-Homeland Security Secretary emerged, Trump had come around to his point of view.
Vivian Salama and Jill Colvin use this anecdote to explain the impact Kelly will have on the Trump White House, but it feels like something else — at least from the source’s point of view:
Raised voices could be heard through the thick door to the Oval Office as John Kelly — then secretary of Homeland Security — offered some tough talk to President Donald Trump.
Kelly, a whip-cracking retired general who was sworn in as White House chief of staff on Monday, had demanded to speak to the president alone after Trump complained loudly that the U.S. was admitting travelers from countries he viewed as high risk.
Kelly first tried to explain to Trump that the admissions were standard — some people had legitimate reasons to visit the country — but the president insisted that it was making him look bad, according to an administration official familiar with the exchange about a month ago.
Kelly then demanded that other advisers leave the room so he could speak to the president frankly. Trump refused at first, but agreed when Kelly insisted.
Allahpundit predicted yesterday that Kelly might be damned if he succeeds and damned if he fails. The problem with failure is obvious, but success might cross the line into a distraction from Trump himself, who’s not usually inclined to take satisfaction in the reflected glow of success from an underling, especially if the success comes from challenging the top dog.
People in position to tell this story know that, too, which is why the emergence of this anecdote seems a little suspicious. An administration official who had enough access to listen at the Oval Office door is one who’s also going to get the Kelly treatment down the line, too. If it’s an administration official who might have something to lose by having Kelly enforce the chain of command at the White House, what better way to engineer an end to it by damning the new chief of staff with fulsome praise? Leak an anecdote about Kelly putting Trump in his place, and voilà! Kelly gets to join Scaramucci and Priebus on the hit parade.
On the other hand, perhaps Trump has had enough of the toady model of organization. If this anecdote is on the level, then Trump understood that Kelly was no yes man. Loyal, definitely, as Salama and Colvin explain, but not someone who fears confrontation with the boss. Watching the results of the undisciplined environment over the first six months of his presidency might have convinced Trump that he needed a drastic change of approach.
VA Secretary David Shulkin told Hugh Hewitt this morning that there really has been a “reset” in the White House:
HH: Do you think a reset has occurred? Do you think…
DS: I do.
HH: Go ahead.
DS: I do. I do. I think that this is a reset. I think that this is a White House that is dealing with so many issues and trying to move so quickly that it’s taking a while to learn the best way in which to organize itself internally, and to represent itself externally. And I think we now are on the right path, and I think everybody’s committed to making sure that we support both Chief of Staff Kelly and the President.
We’ll see how true this is after a few more stories about Kelly’s independence of thought leak out of the White House. If Trump shrugs them off and order gets restored, then Trump will have proven that he can learn and adapt on the job — and resist the provocations of leaked stories such as this. If not, we’ll see Kelly’s exit interview on Hannity soon enough.