Chief of staff Kelly calm on a tightrope in rare press event

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Michael D. Shear

WASH­ING­TON >> In his first ex­tended ap­pear­ance be­fore the White House press corps on Thurs­day, John F. Kelly, the for­mer Marine gen­eral turned pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, came off as very un-Trumpian.

Kelly firmly em­braced diplo­macy with North Korea, sharply con­trast­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­cent dec­la­ra­tion that ne­go­ti­a­tions are a waste of time. Em­ploy­ing a bit of jovial ban­ter with the press, the chief of staff struck an easy­go­ing tone in as­sur­ing re­porters that he means “no dis­re­spect to you all” — just hours af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump again railed in a Twit­ter post against “Fake News” that was “go­ing all out in or­der to de­mean and den­i­grate!”

And Kelly deftly tried to soften Trump’s morn­ing mus­ing that fed­eral aid work­ers could not stay “for­ever” in hur­ri­cane-rav­aged Puerto Rico.

Yet if Kelly’s rare mo­ment in the news me­dia spot­light was partly about pres­i­den­tial cleanup, it also was per­fectly clear that he knew Trump would be watch­ing. With the cam­eras rolling, Kelly put in an en­thu­si­as­tic plug for a border wall, lec­tured re­porters about get­ting “bet­ter sources” and in­sisted that he had no in­ten­tion of try­ing to con­trol the pres­i­dent’s tweet­ing. He called Trump “a man of ac­tion” and “a straight­for­ward guy.” Such is the tightrope that a chief of staff in a Trump pres­i­dency must walk: si­mul­ta­ne­ously demon­strat­ing a sense of calm and or­der in­side the White House while be­ing care­ful not to ap­pear crit­i­cal of the pres­i­dent’s lack of those very qual­i­ties.

“His goal seemed to be to re­as­sure peo­ple that there’s a grown-up in the room with Trump,” said Chris Whip­ple, the au­thor of “The Gate­keep­ers,” a book about White House chiefs of staff. “In the midst of all the chaos and the back-stab­bing in the West Wing, he looks like a grown-up. He smiles. He seems rea­son­able. All of that is a plus.”

If there was any doubt that Kelly faces a dif­fi­cult bal­anc­ing act, the chief’s first task on Thurs­day was to beat back ru­mors that his own job is in im­me­di­ate jeop­ardy. In do­ing so, he be­came the sec­ond top Trump of­fi­cial in a week to in­sist he is not about to be fired. “I would just of­fer to you that although I read it all the time pretty con­sis­tently, I’m not quit­ting to­day,” Kelly quipped, re­fer­ring to news re­ports that have sug­gested he is dis­cour­aged at the White House and on the outs with Trump. “I just talked to the pres­i­dent — I don’t think I’m be­ing fired to­day. And I’m not so frus­trated in this job that I’m think­ing of leav­ing.”

Last week, Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son faced a sim­i­lar task af­ter re­ports that he had called Trump a “mo­ron.” But where Tiller­son was awk­ward and brusque dur­ing a sim­i­lar face-off with the press, Kelly was smooth and ge­nial. His only frus­tra­tion, Kelly said, was re­peat­edly read­ing un­true sto­ries about things Trump said, or of peo­ple who are about to be fired.


John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, fielded ques­tions Thurs­day dur­ing a daily briefing at the White House in Wash­ing­ton.

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