WASHINGTON — White House chief of staff John Kelly has eroded morale in the West Wing in recent months with comments to aides that include insulting the president’s intelligence and casting himself as the savior of the country, according to eight current and former White House officials.
The officials said Kelly portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe, curbing the erratic urges of a president who has a questionable grasp on policy issues and the functions of government. He has referred to Trump as “an idiot” multiple times to underscore his point, according to four officials who say they’ve witnessed the comments.
Kelly called the allegations “total BS.”
“I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship,” said Kelly in a statement. “He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS. I am committed to the president, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”
Three White House spokespeople said they don’t believe it’s accurate that Kelly called the president an “idiot,” adding that none of them has ever heard him do that or otherwise use that word.
Officials said Kelly’s public image as a retired four-star general instilling discipline on a chaotic White House and an impulsive president belies what they describe as the undisciplined and indiscreet approach he’s employed as chief of staff. The private manner aides describe may shed new light on why Kelly now finds himself — just nine months into the job — grappling with diminished influence and a drumbeat of questions about how long he’ll remain at the White House.
“He says stuff you can’t believe,” said one senior White House official. “He’ll say it and you think, ‘That is not what you should be saying.'”
Trump, who aides said has soured on his second chief of staff, is aware of some though not all of Kelly’s comments, according to the current and former officials.
The White House spokespeople said they haven’t heard Kelly talk about himself as the one saving the country, and that if anything he may have spoken in jest along those lines.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said Kelly’s comments about Trump, when compared to previous White House chiefs of staff, “suggest a lack of respect for the sitting president of a kind that we haven’t seen before.” Beschloss said the closest similarity would be President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff during his second term, Don Regan, who “somewhat looked down on” his boss and eventually lost the support of the staff and the president. Regan was replaced after two years by Howard Baker.
The last time it became public that one of Trump’s top advisers insulted his intelligence behind his back, it didn’t go over well with the president. White House aides have said Trump never got over former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling him a “moron” in front of colleagues, which was first reported by NBC News. Trump later challenged Tillerson to an IQ test and fired him several months after the remark became public.
Current and former White House officials said Kelly has at times made remarks that have rattled female staffers. Kelly has told aides multiple times that women are more emotional than men, including at least once in front of the president, four current and former officials said.
And during a firestorm in February over accusations of domestic abuse against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, Kelly wondered aloud how much more Porter would have to endure before his honor could be restored, according to three officials who were present for the comments. He also questioned why Porter’s ex-wives wouldn’t just move on based on the information he said he had about his marriages, the officials said.
Some current and former White House officials said they expect Kelly to leave by July, his one-year mark. But others say it’s anyone’s guess. What’s clear is both Trump and Kelly seem to have tired of each other.
“Kelly appears to be less engaged, which may be to the president’s detriment,” a second senior White House official said.
Kelly has maintained at least two close allies in the West Wing — Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and White House counsel Don McGahn, current and former officials said.
The White House spokespeople conceded that Trump gets frustrated at times with Kelly, particularly when he feels Kelly is not giving him all the information he needs and wants. They said Kelly and Trump have an open, candid relationship.
The spokespeople disputed that staff has lost confidence in Kelly, saying he’s still chief of staff so when he issues an order aides comply and that “for the most part the staff still respects and genuinely likes Kelly.”
The White House spokespeople said they haven’t seen Kelly have a negative effect on the morale of women staffers. If anything, they said during meetings Kelly is the “bigger gentleman” who steps in when aides use foul language to note “a lady is present” and similarly says he shouldn’t use foul language in front of a lady if he’s used an expletive. The spokespeople, who would not speak for the record, said it’s possible Kelly may have said women are more emotional than men, with one of them agreeing that “generally speaking, women are more emotional than men.”
“We’ve got to save him from himself”
Kelly entered the White House with a mandate to instill order in a West Wing where aides regularly had unfettered access to the president. He adopted some key changes, such as shrinking the number of people in meetings and limiting access to the Oval Office.
He has also pushed back against the president on some foreign policy and military issues, current and former White House officials said.
In one heated exchange between the two men before February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, Kelly strongly — and successfully — dissuaded Trump from ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, according to two officials.
For Kelly, the exchange underscored the reasoning behind one of his common refrains, which multiple officials described as some version of “I’m the one saving the country.”
“The strong implication being ‘if I weren’t here we would’ve entered WWIII or the president would have been impeached,'” one former senior White House official said.