Long viewed as the adult in a room of personalities, John Kelly’s tenure as White House chief-of-staff has been a perpetual high-wire act of damage control, mediation and containing President Donald Trump’s instincts. But with the barreling addition of former Manhattan mayor Rudy Giuliani to the president’s legal team, coming during spats between senior officials, Kelly’s authority is greatly diminished, with many warning of an impending ouster.
Although rumors of Kelly’s exit breezed throughout the Acela corridor for months, they appeared validated this week when NBC reported that four White House officials overheard the chief-of-staff call Trump “an idiot.” Kelly denied using such language, calling the allegations “total BS. ”
“This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes,” said the official in a statement.
Both POLITICO and The New York Times reaffirmed NBC’s report this week, citing their own conversations with White House sources.
“He doesn’t have control over the White House he runs,” one senior administration official told POLITICO. “There’s no common purpose binding people together.”
Another staffer told the publication that NBC’s story was orchestrated by officials unable to obtain security clearances, an ongoing national security crisis that first hit the news cycle in February following the resignation of disgraced staff secretary Rob Porter.
“Some wrongly believe the chief stands between them and their security clearances, but it’s not his call,” said the staffer. “People have a hard time looking in the mirror. It’s a lot easier to train their anger on Gen. Kelly and blame him for why they don’t work there.”
Like Kelly, Trump denied the claim and told reporters on Friday he “could not be more happy” with his chief-of-staff.
But history has shown us that when Trump denies claims and tells reporters he “could not be more happy” with his underlings, he is very much not happy with their performance and is planning their ousting.
In the case of Rex Tillerson, the former state secretary reportedly called the president “a moron” last October. Though both men denied this, their relationship deteriorated for months as Trump continually undermined Tillerson on issues of international diplomacy—even tweeting that then-state secretary was wasting his time in negotiating with North Korea. Seeing his authority diminished, Tillerson was fired over Twitter in March.
Increasingly isolated, Trump has turned to longtime friends to help him navigate multiple investigations into questions of collusion and hush payments to porn stars, trading in the D.C.’s establishment for Manhattan’s labyrinth of power. Rudy Giuliani has barreled forth within the administration to defend the president in uncoordinated interviews, further undermining Kelly’s order.
When power—as Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism—loses its purpose and fails to serve a function in society, its very existence fosters resentment. Having lost his power, already resented by underlings over his conservative approach toward security clearances, Kelly is paralyzed in a world moving at hyperspeed.