Screaming matches, physical confrontations, and storming out of the White House. These are just some of the stories circulating about chief of staff John Kelly, who faces fresh speculation about his future with President Trump.
Rumors about Kelly's future with the Trump administration have simmered for months and new allegations about his demeanor and behavior in the West Wing have thrust the retired Marine Corps general back into the spotlight.
Kelly’s defenders say the leaks from the White House are part of a larger strategy by disgruntled officials and former aides designed to end his tenure while opponents insist Kelly is unsuited to be White House chief of staff.
“The leakers have tried everything to impact Gen. Kelly’s longevity in the White House,” Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide, said. “Demeanor is the next step. After this, it might be his choice of suits and ties and after that, how his shoes are shined too brightly. It’s just the steady stream of opponents of the general’s trying to impact his longevity.”
According to the several reports, Kelly and John Bolton, the national security adviser, engaged in a screaming match about immigration outside the Oval Office on Thursday morning. Kelly was said to have left the White House complex after the dispute and did not come back for the remainder of the day.
This week, anonymous sources revealed that Kelly tangled with Corey Lewandowski, former Trump campaign manager and an informal adviser to the president, during an argument in February. According to The New York Times, Kelly grabbed Lewandowski by his collar and tried to push him up against a wall after calling someone to remove Lewandowski from the West Wing.
The White House has sought to calm the waters. After the Bolton clash was made public, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that White House staff were "passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration," but were not "angry" with each other.
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, said Kelly has been effective in some ways, but described Kelly’s management style as “confrontational.” He said: “I think [Kelly] certainly brought some changes, but with that said, overall his approach in terms of controlling who talks to the president, how the president operates, it’s just never going to work."
Kelly has earned the ire of Anthony Scaramucci, who was hired to serve as White House communications director but fired 11 days later after a profanity-laced phone call with a reporter. Scaramucci — promoting a book — told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an interview Sunday that Kelly throws “hissy fits.”
In the book, Trump, the Blue-Collar President, Scaramucci recalled a conversation with the president after his firing during which he expressed his concerns about Kelly. “It’s been over a year since John Kelly became the White House chief of staff, but my scouting report early on proved to be quite accurate,” he wrote. “His personal insecurity has proven to be a poor match with the self-confident, gregarious president.”
Scaramucci further accused Kelly of being “incapable of recruiting a compatible staff to work with him."
Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, an inside look at White House chiefs of staff, said Kelly has been a “huge disappointment” in his role.
“He lacks the temperament to be White House chief of staff. He’s clearly got a very short fuse,” Whipple said. “As a general rule, White House chiefs of staff do not grab people by the throat in the West Wing.”
Whipple cited as an example of Kelly’s temperament comments he made in the White House briefing room in October about Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., following the death of U.S. troops during an ambush in Niger.
Speaking to the press, Kelly accused Wilson of inappropriately claiming credit in 2015 for securing the funding for an FBI building in Miami. He went on to call Wilson an empty barrel. Kelly took heat for the comments, especially after video from the dedication ceremony where Kelly said Wilson made the comments failed to support his claims.
“I think John Kelly told us everything you need to know about his temperament that day when he stepped foot in the White House briefing room,” Whipple said.
Kelly was brought on as White House chief of staff in July 2017 — leaving his position as secretary of Homeland Security — to restore order in what was described as a chaotic White House operation.He has also come under scrutiny for statements he made about former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who departed earlier this year after allegations of domestic violence were revealed.
Caputo, however, credited Kelly with bringing a “flavor of discipline” to the West Wing that was lacking during the tenure of his predecessor, Reince Priebus.
“Gen. Kelly has been a strong hand in the White House. Even in the time when people say he’s been marginalized, he’s still had an impact on who sees the president and who doesn’t, and how the president spends his time,” Caputo said. “That is always a role where one would make enemies, and my guess is the leakers are people who have had trouble seeing the president, have seen their ideas shot down or their briefing papers never delivered to the Resolute Desk.”
Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, downplayed the reports of altercations, saying they were overblown. “There’s always battles within the White House and in different factions in any White House. I think this White House gets magnified more because they are subject to the media scrutiny 24/7,” O'Connell said. “There’s always going to be someone in the White House who is unhappy no matter who is in charge.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Kelly, acting on a request from Trump, agreed to stay on as chief of staff through the 2020 election. O'Connell said the fact that Trump asked Kelly to stick around through the next presidential election "tells you that he has done, at least in the president's eyes, a good job."
And Caputo said the inside information about Kelly flowing to the press likely won't affect his departure and there are no indications he will be fired by Trump, who is more comfortable with discord and friction between aides than other presidents.
“I think Gen. Kelly will leave the White House when he’s damn good and ready,” he said. “And the president has made it very clear that he’s just fine with that.”