Almost the first thing White House chief of staff John Kelly did after being sworn in Monday was dismiss communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who he believed had become a distraction in the aftermath of a profanity laced-tirade to a reporter.
The decision made clear that Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, is serious about taking control of President Donald Trump’s notoriously unregimented West Wing. During his first meetings at the White House Monday, Kelly informed aides that they all report to him, said one senior White House official. “No doubt who is in charge,” the official said.
Kelly’s first day established a sharp contrast with his predecessor Reince Priebus, who was frequently undermined by colleagues with direct access to the president. In interviews, a half-dozen White House officials described Kelly’s quick moves to assert and consolidate control, even as the president himself tweeted, “No WH chaos!”
“Kelly is already changing the culture here,” one White House aide said.
White House officials said Kelly is planning to lock down the Oval Office, restricting the number of aides and outside visitors who can wander in. One aide said Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have agreed to follow Kelly’s rules when it comes to visiting the Oval and sharing information with the president. “They are going to actually report to him,” the aide said.
“Old habits die hard, but I’m confident he can kill them,” one person close to Kelly said of the uphill battle he faces in monitoring access to the president.
Kelly has told associates that he believes it’s his responsibility to “straighten this out” — and that he wouldn’t have taken the chief of staff job if he wasn’t given the authority to make tough decisions, according to an outside adviser to the White House who has spoken directly to Kelly.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday that all White House staff would report to Kelly.
Those who know Kelly say his decision to oust Scaramucci fits with his track record of removing subordinates that he believes are standing in the way of his mission.
“It’s not surprising to me that he would can someone,” said Mieke Eoyang, the vice president at Third Way’s National Security Program, who has known Kelly for about 20 years.
Scaramucci was named to the role just 10 days ago, a move that prompted the resignation of Sanders’ predecessor, Sean Spicer.
“Mr. Scaramucci felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team,” Sanders said in a statement. “We wish him all the best.”
Aides said Kelly has already accepted that he will have little control over one of the biggest impediments to order in the White House: Trump’s tweeting.
“He, within 24 hours, can pull them back into the same quagmire,” said former Nixon White House general counsel John Dean.
“The whole question is how Trump treats this. If he sees this as a reset, it’s a reset. If it’s a new crew to put blame on then we’ll know that soon too,” Dean added.
Kelly, who previously served as Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security, inherits a West Wing engulfed by a series of federal and congressional probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump had repeatedly complained on Twitter that the FBI probe overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller is a “witch hunt” that has engulfed his administration and put his own family members into the direct line of the investigation.
The president has also publicly slammed his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over his recusal from the Russia case, calling him “beleaguered.”
Former White House aides said other big chief of staff shakeups have been potent shots in the arm to propel a presidency forward. President Barack Obama’s final chief of staff, Denis McDonough, lasted the entire second term and was seen as helping advance a series of major policy initiatives without suffering a major scandal, all while working the entire time with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Leon Panetta helped bring discipline to an unruly opening year of the Clinton administration and guided the Democrat through his reelection bid. Howard Baker’s arrival in early 1987 was widely seen as giving Ronald Reagan a big boost after more than a year mired in the Iran-Contra scandal.
But the staff turnover at the Trump White House won’t stop the drip-drip of media coverage surrounding the Russia investigation, said former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.
“What hurts the White House more is the feeding frenzy,” he said.
Trump made it clear Monday that he has high expectations for Kelly, who has emerged as a favorite member of his administration.
The president used a string of choreographed appearances before the press on Monday to lavish praise on Kelly, marveling at his brief but “miraculous” tenure as Homeland Security secretary, a role he performed with “very little controversy.”
“He will do a spectacular job, I have no doubt, as chief of staff,” Trump gushed. “What he’s done in terms of Homeland Security is record-shattering.”
Even before he was sworn in, Kelly had emerged as a prized member of Trump’s team. Aides said the president, long enamored with generals, believes Kelly was his most effective Cabinet secretary.
Kelly was thrust into the spotlight early in the administration by Trump’s January executive order banning travel from multiple Muslim-majority countries, an order that created temporary chaos at airports across the country.
People close to Kelly said he’ll likely take a keen interest in foreign policy issues. And while some White House aides have raised concerns about his relative lack of experience on the Hill, others noted that he has built strong relationships with members of Congress of both parties when he served as the Marine’s liaison to Capitol Hill.
Kelly has spoken twice with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell since Sunday, according to a McConnell spokesman. He’s also connected with House Speaker Paul Ryan, a close friend and ally of Priebus, whose ouster was announced Friday by Trump via Twitter alongside Kelly’s appointment.
“I think it’s an amazingly good thing the president has turned to the general,” said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. He added that Kelly’s presence might cut down on “a lot of the screaming and shouting down there.”
It remains unclear how involved Kelly will be in shaping Trump’s communications strategy. But the decision to remove Scaramucci leaves a gaping hole at the top of the White House press office – and it sends a message that Kelly has little tolerance for showboats.
Trump has suggested that he wants to have more off-the-record time with journalists. There’s a feeling among some West Wing aides that if the press engaged with Trump more they would see his point of view. But off-the-record chats could further complicate Kelly’s job, especially if the president’s off-color comments go public.
While chief White House strategist Steve Bannon became an ally of Priebus, he’s made it known that he’s happy to see Kelly elevated to chief of staff rather than Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council.
Bannon feared Cohn could be primed for the post if Priebus was ousted, according to a White House aide and a Bannon ally. The ally said Bannon believes that installing Kelly was a loss for the “White House Democrats” meaning Cohn, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, because it meant that Cohn was not lined up for the job.
Still, Kushner and Ivanka Trump are said to be supportive of hiring Kelly as chief of staff. “Looking forward to serving alongside John Kelly as we work for the American people,” Ivanka Trump wrote on Twitter Monday afternoon. “General Kelly is a true American hero.”
John Bresnahan, Burgess Everett and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this story.