President Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly has privately expressed concerns about the White House’s political and outreach operations, and is weighing changes to both offices as part of his larger effort to professionalize a chaotic West Wing, according to four people familiar with his thinking.
Kelly is particularly frustrated with the Office of the Public Liaison, these people say.
The retired marine general has told White House aides that the office, which is charged with doing outreach to outside groups, has not been properly managed and has not done enough to build effective coalitions, leaving the president with few voluble defenders.
George Sifakis, a close ally and personal friend of ousted chief of staff Reince Priebus, is stepping down at the end of this month as director of the Office of Public Liaison, and a replacement has not yet been named. Presidential Personnel Director John DeStefano is temporarily leading the operation.
Kelly has also raised concerns that the office has become a dumping ground for problematic hires — or other patronage positions. Omarosa Manigault, a former reality television star and longtime Trump associate who has reportedly made enemies in the White House with her aggressive style, is the office’s communications director.
In general, Kelly has questioned whether the political and public liaison offices have a clear strategic vision, the people familiar with his thinking said.
Kelly’s scrutiny of the offices comes as he has sought to impose order and discipline on an often free-wheeling West Wing in which top aides have lacked clear portfolios and warring factions have gotten easy access to Trump.
The retired general is conducting a wide-scale review of the various arms of the White House in an effort to identify inefficiencies, and the Office of Public Liaison and the Office of Political Affairs are seen as two logical targets. Collectively, the offices serve a crucial role in bolstering the president’s agenda and building support among Republicans on everything from trade to health care to tax reform, as Trump has struggled to deliver on his campaign promises.
“We certainly want to see those offices do more as we push an aggressive legislative agenda,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an interview.
Sanders said Kelly is not “frustrated” with the offices, but is instead “focused” on improvements, particularly around coalition-building and getting support for the president’s agenda. She said to expect new hires and changes in the Office of the Public Liaison and potentially more hires in the political office as well.
Currently, Bill Stepien leads the political operation. A former top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Stepien became embroiled in the state’s Bridgegate scandal, raising eyebrows among some White House aides. Despite his name being mentioned almost 700 times during the criminal trial of other Christie aides, Stepien was never charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
Stepien is particularly close to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser, and the low-profile political operative was seen as integral in the 2016 election win. Stepien has developed something of a rapport with Kelly and is not expected to depart the administration.
Sanders said that Stepien’s job is not at risk, adding that he had been involved in recent tax reform conversations.
Outside Republicans have complained that the political shop has not done enough to communicate with state and local GOP leaders. And they have questioned whether the White House has any particular political strategy. However, allies of the political operation note several primary victories and say the shop is developing a detailed strategy for the 2018 election.
And there are deeper questions about the overall effectiveness of the Office of Public Liaison. Trump administration officials have long rolled their eyes at the office, which coordinates with trade associations, civic and business groups and other influential organizations.
“The Office of Public Liaison is a dumpster fire right now, but it’s always been bad,” a former administration official said. “You just have a lot of people in there who are under qualified, or not qualified for the position and who just want to run their own little shop.”
Sanders said to expect a new permanent director at the Office of Public Liaison soon.
Nancy Cook contributed to this story.