That’s according to Gabriel Sherman, one of many reporters hearing rumblings about POTUS’s displeasure lately with his chief of staff. It’s not really a secret given Trump’s grumpy tweeting on Thursday morning after Kelly called him “uninformed” as a candidate about aspects of immigration policy the day before. We’re now four days removed from that and I still don’t understand what Kelly was doing on Fox News, of all places, undermining Trump’s authority on his bread-and-butter issue. Has he not heard of Steve Bannon? Does he not know what happens to aides who are seen as svengalis, pulling the president’s puppet strings and denying him his due as the very stable genius who’s steering our ship of state?
Assuming the quote is accurate, this wouldn’t be the first time Trump has described a disfavored deputy as a “nutjob.” That’s the exact word he allegedly used in May during his Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister to refer to the recently fired James Comey. If you believe Sherman, we may be referring to Kelly as “recently fired” soon too.
Donald Trump’s relationship with John Kelly, his chief of staff, fraught from the beginning, may finally have gone past the point of no return. Two prominent Republicans in frequent contact with the White House told me that Trump has discussed choosing Kelly’s successor in recent days, asking a close friend what he thought about David Urban, a veteran Washington lobbyist and political operative who helped engineer Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania. Ivanka is also playing a central role in the search, quietly field-testing ideas with people. “Ivanka is the most worried about it. She’s trying to figure who replaces Kelly,” a person who’s spoken with her said…
Trump has increasingly been chafing at the media narrative that he needs Kelly to instill discipline on his freewheeling management style. “The more Kelly plays up that he’s being the adult in the room—that it’s basically combat duty and he’s serving the country—that kind of thing drives Trump nuts,” a Republican close to the White House said. In recent days, Trump has fumed to friends that Kelly acts like he’s running the government while Trump tweets and watches television. “I’ve got another nut job here who thinks he’s running things,” Trump told one friend, according to a Republican briefed on the call. A second source confirmed that Trump has vented about Kelly, mentioning one call in which Trump said, “This guy thinks he’s running the show.” (A White House official said “it’s categorically false that Trump is unhappy with Kelly. “He’s only ever referred to him as the general, tough, can be rough, and commands respect.)
Urban had been mentioned as a candidate to succeed Reince Priebus in July, before Kelly landed the job. Where would the media get the idea that Trump “needs Kelly to instill discipline” on him? Well, per the Times, from Kelly himself:
Mr. Kelly has made little secret of the fact that he never wanted to be White House chief of staff, and took the job out of the same sense of duty that led him to a four-decade career in the Marines.
In the West Wing, Mr. Kelly seldom allows the staff to forget the dynamic, according to people who have observed him, often positioning himself as a one-man check against dangerous or reckless moves by the commander in chief. His loyalty is not to the president, “but to the Constitution and the country,” he has said, according to two people with direct knowledge of his remarks.
One of Sherman’s sources thought that Trump is less likely to fire Kelly and precipitate a new scramble for a chief of staff than to give him the Jeff Sessions treatment, where he whines about a disfavored deputy periodically on Twitter in hopes that he’ll quit but never quite musters the nerve to pull the trapdoor on him. The problem with trying that on Kelly is that he and Trump are in close quarters every day; Trump can snipe at Sessions and know that it may be weeks before he has to be alone with him but if he insults Kelly he’ll have to account for it to the man himself immediately. And not just any man but a four-star Marine general whom the Times claimed threatened to quit repeatedly early in his tenure (albeit less often recently) in order to get West Wingers to follow orders. As far back as September 1, just around a month after he’d become chief of staff, stories were already appearing in the media about Kelly and Trump grating on each other, with Trump having laid into Kelly so harshly at one point that the general told White House staffers he’d never been spoken to that way in 35 years of public service and wouldn’t stand for it again. God only knows how harsh it got behind closed doors after Kelly’s Fox News appearance last week.
One obvious possibility for why this is leaking is skullduggery by pro-amnesty Republicans. Kelly and Stephen Miller have become the chief obstacles in the West Wing to a compromise on DREAMers. Trump seems to want to make a deal but Kelly and Miller, the two core border hawks left in the White House, are reportedly pushing Trump to hang tough. If you’re a Lindsey Graham or Jeff Flake type who’s eager to create daylight between Trump and Kelly, leaking a story like this about tension between the president and his chief of staff is one way to create it. Maybe Kelly will quit, or maybe his own allies will read it and snipe back at the president anonymously, furthering angering Trump and convincing him that he’s better off ignoring Kelly and doing a deal with Graham. If not for Trump’s Thursday morning tweets it’d be easy to dismiss the whole thing and assume that he wasn’t as annoyed by Kelly’s “uninformed” comments as we might think. But the presidential Twitter account don’t lie.
According to Sherman, Trump’s also been chattering to friends lately that the polls are wrong and his approval rating is actually in the high 50s. All righty. Exit question: Who’s going to end up replacing Kelly? Urban would be qualified, I’m sure, but waaaaay too low-profile for the colorful cast of characters in the West Wing. And I’m not sure he has a sufficient crony quotient to satisfy Trump, despite having led his campaign in Pennsylvania. Trump’s had two personality mismatches as his chiefs of staff: Priebus was a yes-man but also a creature of the RNC, not an old-school Trumpist, while Kelly is a disciplined alpha male who came over from the military. What Trump probably wants this time (which is different from what he needs) is a true supplicant whom he knows well and trusts. I keep thinking Corey Lewandowski or Chris Christie will end up in the role, but Kellyanne Conway’s right there in the West Wing already and she checks most of the necessary boxes. When does Conway take over?