President Donald Trump is losing his chief of staff, John Kelly, after a difficult — some say failed — 16-month stint to try and bring order to a chaotic West Wing.
“He’ll not be remembered as a great chief of staff and maybe not even a good one simply because he failed to control the administration’s worst impulses,” said Mike Carpenter, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense until early last year. “So those are now his worst policies. He’s associated with them for better or worse.”
Trump made the announcement on the South Lawn of the White House before departing Saturday for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. He said he would announce a replacement soon.
“John Kelly will be leaving — I don’t know if I can say ‘retiring,’” Trump said. “But he’s a great guy. John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year.”
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Trump frequently referred to Kelly as one of “my generals” and recruited the retired four-star Marine Corps general to the White House in July 2017 after serving as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly quickly became a star for Trump, who showered Kelly with praise for his work to help reduce immigration to the lowest levels in years.
His charge was to bring order to a West Wing that was besieged with chaos and disorder. Many staffers expressed relief about his appointment and welcomed his calls to install military order. He was preceeded by former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
On his first day in the White House, Kelly fired Anthony Scaramucci, the communications director hired only 11 days before, after he made vulgar criticism against other members of the president’s staff, including Priebus, and Stephen K. Bannon, then the chief White House strategist.
Trump had previously said Kelly would serve as his chief of staff through 2020, but their differences became too much. Kelly’s buttoned-up style clashed with Trump’s free-wheeling, open door preferences.
Kelly reportedly offered Trump his resignation earlier this year after allowing his former staff secretary Rob Porter to remain at the White House even after Porter’s ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse. Porter later resigned amid photos of his ex-wife with a black eye.
In October, Kelly and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, reportedly got into a shouting match over immigration, border crossings and the performance of the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a former deputy of Kelly who he supported to replace him at the department.
Nicholas Rostow, who served as a national security aide to George W. Bush, said Kelly had a good military reputation and credited Kelly with restoring order to the degree he could, but he said it was unclear whether the two ever had the right chemistry.
“This president’s not the easiest guy to work for,” Rostow said.
Carpenter described Kelly’s job as “mission impossible,” but said now Kelly’s legacy will be tied to the White House and Trump’s most controversial policies. Those include separating migrant children from their parents at the border and diplomatic mishaps such as his stunning rebuke of U.S. intelligence during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During a joint news conference with Putin in Helsinki, Trump questioned U.S. government’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying he doesn’t “see any reason why” Russia would be responsible.
“He tried to impose discipline on the White House and largely failed simply because no one could control Trump,” Carpenter said. “He may have introduced a little more of a process and a little more rigor as compared to Reince Priebus. But on the whole I think he was unsuccessful in reigning in Trump when his worst excesses were on display.”
The decision is expected to cause aftershocks among leaders domestically and abroad who will be concerned about a return to White House that is even more undisciplined and chaotic. Some leaders have long worried privately that Kelly and also Defense Secretary James N. Mattis were the only senior advisers who could guide Trump away from potentially disastrous scenarios brought on by Trump’s inexperience on the world stage.
“Asia-Pacific leaders would be worried by the departure of Kelly or Mattis,” said Douglas H. Paal, a former staff member on the National Security Council under former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That worry would be attenuated or increased depending on who is named to replace them, whom they will judge by their maturity and range of experience.”
Paal said Asian leaders serve long terms and try to forge relationships with Americans who hold a long view.
“They expect experienced personnel with mature judgment to assist US decision-making,” he said.
At this point, the leading candidate to replace Kelly is Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. Other names that have been discussed include Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman who now serves as President Donald Trump’s budget director, House Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.