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