Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has griped privately for months about the disarray at the White House. Now he’s tasked with bringing order to the chaos.
When he officially becomes chief of staff on Monday, Kelly, a no-nonsense retired Marine Corps general, will be thrust into the center of the West Wing soap opera, where President Donald Trump’s policy agenda regularly gets preempted by feuding advisers and headline-grabbing scandals.
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It remains to be seen whether Kelly can succeed where Reince Priebus failed — by figuring out a way to rein in an unpredictable president and put a lid on the steady stream of drama at the White House.
Privately, White House aides and others close to the administration acknowledged it won’t be easy. Even without Priebus, the West Wing remains fractured, with advisers competing for influence over the president.
“I think this is the best and last shot,” said one person close to Kelly. “This is it.”
Kelly is expected to nonetheless try to exert his authority early, including by limiting access to the Oval Office, according to people briefed on his plans. Kelly wants to have more of a pecking order among the staff and a more “traditional” approach, one White House official said.
But others in the White House said it’s too early to make predictions. “Everything is up in the air. Anyone who tells you they know anything is lying,” a White House official said.
Trump has been impressed with Kelly’s tenure at DHS, according to White House aides, who say the president believes Kelly is the most successful and productive Cabinet secretary.
But there is nonetheless concern at the White House about Kelly’s lack of experience with Congress.
“He doesn’t have the relationships over there,” one aide said.
Kelly has built relationships with several top White House aides in recent months, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, who have played a central role in Trump’s immigration crackdown.
Kelly has nonetheless expressed frustration about the White House to friends and associates, complaining about the slow pace of hiring and bristling at having to answer to lower-level aides, according to one person who has spoken to him and another person familiar with the tension.
A DHS spokesman declined to comment.
One of the people close to Kelly said he likely won’t have much in common with communications director Anthony Scaramucci, the fast-talking former New York financier.
Asked to name any similarities between the two men, the person said, “They’re both Catholic, but that’s probably about it.”
Though Scaramucci has repeatedly said he reports directly to the president, a White House official said Kelly will have “full authority over the staff at the White House.”
Kelly is expected to make his first staff change at the White House on Monday, when he’ll bring in Kirstjen Nielsen, his chief of staff at DHS. White House aides said it’s unclear what her title will be.
Several current and former government officials who have worked closely with Kelly cited his previous stints as the senior military assistant to former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta as highly relevant experience — a role one described as a “mini gatekeeper.”
Kelly allies expect him to try to exert adult supervision over the White House.
“He strongly believes in discipline and a strong chain command,” Leon Panetta, who also served as chief of staff and director of the White House Office of Management and Budget for President Bill Clinton, said of his former military aide in an interview. “He has little tolerance for chaos and people who don’t follow orders.”
A major task before Kelly, Panetta said, will be to establish “a process for developing policy and a chain of command.”
“Competing power centers makes that job almost impossible.”
Kelly will also have to be able to take on the president — something few administration officials are expected to do as much as the White House chief of staff.
“He will have to be willing to look the president in the eye and tell him when he is wrong,” Panetta said on Saturday. “He can’t just be a yes man.”
“Whether John can succeed depends on whether President Trump can change.”
But Kelly, a product of a professional culture that thrives on a rigorous organizational style and methodological approach to making decisions, will take over the West Wing at a very different time and for a very different president.
“A friend said to me recently, ‘John’s morals will be under assault from the moment he enters the role.’ That’s probably true, and is as it should be,” said Wendy Anderson, who worked closely with Kelly at the Pentagon between 2011 and 2013.
While rare, Kelly won’t be the only career military man to play the role of White House chief of staff.
Gen. Alexander Haig, while still on active-duty, took the reins for Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal in 1973 and Admiral William Leahy was recalled to active duty in 1942 during World War II to be the personal chief of staff for Franklin Roosevelt.
But he’s not a political novice either.
Brian McKeon, who served as the executive secretary of the National Security Council under Obama and a top Pentagon policy official, noted that earlier in his Marine Corps career Kelly was a congressional liaison and in his last military post — as head of the U.S. Southern Command — he had to regularly deal with political, diplomatic and economic leaders in Latin America.
“But can he succeed where Priebus failed?” he asked. “Trump likes to be his own chief of staff.”