WASHINGTON — In between rounds of golf in Bedminster, New Jersey, President Donald Trump has been huddling with John Kelly about how to manage the escalating North Korean crisis. The newly minted White House chief of staff has tightly coordinated intelligence briefings, conference calls and meetings with the national security team.
But Kelly, while a constant presence at the president’s side at Trump’s private golf club, has been careful not to weigh in forcefully with an opinion of his own or to push the commander in chief to follow a diplomatic script.
Instead, according to multiple White House officials with knowledge of events, Kelly sat back as Trump extemporaneously delivered his own message — an extraordinary threat Tuesday that North Korea’s nuclear provocations would be met with “fire and fury.”
In an administration that has split into factions and been ravaged by ideological warfare, Kelly has asserted himself as a rare apolitical force who is focused more on the process of the presidency than tilting the president in a certain direction.
So far, Kelly has left no discernible imprint on the White House’s philosophy, even though he has assumed full control of its governance, running operations and policy formation in a way that Trump advisers hope will lead to tangible results.
Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, is one of three generals in civilian positions whom the president has come to rely on for national security advice, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
But on North Korea — as well as a host of other policy issues — Kelly has kept a decidedly low profile, seeing his role as a neutral mediator. Passing up opportunities to nudge the president, Kelly has encouraged key players to argue their points, ensured proposals are vetted and then presented options to the president.
Kelly also has assiduously avoided being tagged as a stalking horse for White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his wing of hard-line nationalists, the Pentagon, or senior adviser Jared Kushner and his coterie of business-friendly centrists. Rather, he has cultivated personal relationships with each of the competing spheres of the White House and pledged a fair hearing for all.
“He has a vivid understanding that Trump is president and he’s not,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich said. “But within that framework, he’s going to work to make Trump effective on Trump’s terms, not on Kelly’s terms …. He won’t try to personally shift the balance in any direction. It’s about making all six sides, or all two sides, have a chance to make a case.”
That mantra extends to domestic policy.
When Kelly attended one of his first policy meetings last week, the other officials in attendance tried to suss out where he stood on a debate roiling the Trump administration: taxes.
Would Kelly back a sweeping overhaul of the tax code, proposed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn? Would he sign off on raising tax rates on the wealthy, championed by Bannon? Or would he favor a narrow tax cut, suggested by outside economic adviser Larry Kudlow?
Kelly gave no hints, leaving some to wonder whether the new West Wing boss had a personal preference at all. As aides struggled to get a read on him, Kelly quipped that his position on taxes was that he pays them — and that he hates paying them, according to three people familiar with the discussion.
The absence of partisan stripes makes Kelly, 67, unique among White House chiefs of staff. In recent history, most have been political animals — including Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, who was a Republican foot soldier as a teenager and rose to become the national party chairman.
Trump’s advisers cited Kelly’s aversion to taking sides in the battles that have consumed the GOP and the White House staff as an asset, saying that he cannot only tame West Wing infighting, but can also try to forge commonground with Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“Building and maintaining unit cohesion and command has been a statement of his career,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. She described Kelly’s motivations for his new job as “his sense of honor, duty and country,” as opposed to enacting an ideological project.
Nonideological should not be misread as moderate, however. White House officials said Kelly sees his role as executing the president’s orders, not modulating them — and they were quick to point out that Kelly managed some of Trump’s most controversial priorities with stubborn determination, including immigration and border enforcement, as secretary of homeland security.
“Let’s remember, General Kelly executed the travel ban,” said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly. “It’s not like he walked away and said, ‘I’m a conscientious objector to the president’s agenda.’ “
Kelly’s confidants say the general took the job in Trump’s White House out of a deep sense of patriotism — a belief that he could help this president and thus the country.
“He has a lot of credibility,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. But, he added, “Trump better not double-cross him, because if he says, ‘I can’t work with this president’ and walks from the Oval Office, then everybody’s going to believe General Kelly. He’s very much like (ousted FBI director James B.) Comey. The integrity is so high.”
In his first few days on the job, Kelly made overtures to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., aiming to repair relationships with Democrats in the aftermath of a polarizing Republican health-care effort that remains stalled.
Kelly, who was the Marine commandant’s liaison officer to the House in the mid-1990s when he was a colonel, long ago established a reputation with lawmakers as a reliable presence who never revealed his politics.
“I think General Kelly being apolitical and having a military background is perhaps a positive at this particular passage in the White House and with this particular president,” said Thomas “Mack” McLarty, a White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. “They need to govern, and he’ll be heard and received.”
Trump, who campaigned promising to be a dealmaking president, is eager for his chief of staff to have an open dialogue with Democratic leaders and to try to build bipartisan coalitions this fall on tax policy and infrastructure spending, especially as tensions with recalcitrant Republicans rise, according to top White House officials, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
As one of the officials put it, the political atmosphere under Kelly is a contrast to when the White House was led by Priebus, a GOP stalwart who “was trained to not work with Democrats and to see them as the enemy.” The general’s “job has been to develop consensus and negotiate solutions.”
Kelly, who tersely answers phone calls with his surname and signs his emails the same way, has taken care even in one-on-one exchanges to remain cagey about his point of view. He talks broadly about “what the president wants to do” or “what is good for the country,” according to people who have interacted with him.
Some Republican leaders have appreciated his sphinx-like mien but privately wondered whether it is sustainable, especially as the party’s base stews and the business community pleads for action. Eventually, Kelly may have to take sides to settle thorny issues that have lingered for weeks, such as confronting North Korea, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the scope of Trump’s tax package, officials said.
Kelly has confided to associates that he is aware that his approach can come across as simplistic or vague in the political vipers’ nest that is the Trump West Wing. But he has said that he is committed to avoiding taking sides.
“To be a successful chief, you shouldn’t be pushing an agenda,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “One of the most important duties is to be the so-called honest broker of information. If you’re doing the job properly, you are by definition apolitical.”
Whipple drew a comparison to James Baker III, who, as chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, acted as a pragmatic enforcer in a White House in which hard-right, “Let Reagan be Reagan” ideologues sought to control the agenda. Yet Baker still had politics in his blood; he had directed President Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign and George H.W. Bush’s 1980 bid.
Kelly’s friends said he often notes that during his 45-year career in the Marines, he never talked politics at length and acted on his beliefs only by voting every two years. Kelly has not said for whom he voted last November.
When Kelly addressed White House staff last Friday, he strongly urged them to put aside their own philosophical ambitions or grievances. “We’re here to serve the country, and you need to check your personal opinions at the door, whatever they might be,” one official recalled of Kelly’s remarks.
“There’s a huge strain in the military services that stays out of politics,” said Brinkley, a professor at Rice University. “They don’t want an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ attached to their name. They’re all about duty, honor, country. And I see Kelly as part of this tradition …. You can’t tar and feather General Kelly as being alternative right or a conservative Trumpian.”
People who have worked with Kelly said they have seen little trace of his worldview or leanings over the years.
“John and I are very old friends. He used to work with the House. He’s an American, period,” Gingrich said, recounting their conversations when he was speaker. “We didn’t talk politics back then. We talked about ideas and how to solve things — and Saddam Hussein.”