When new White House chief of staff John Kelly huddled with senior staff on his first day at work, he outlined a key problem in President Donald Trump’s White House that he planned to fix: Bad information getting into the president’s hands.
Kelly told the staff that information needed to flow through him — whether on paper or in briefings — because the president would make better decisions if given good information.
Kelly, a retired Marine general, faces an uphill path when it comes to his stated goal of instilling order in the White House, from aides who have directly reported to the president and don’t want to see their power curbed to Trump’s own itchy Twitter finger. In talks with congressional leaders, friends and longtime associates, he has bluntly described how serious the problems he faces in the West Wing are, according to more than a half-dozen people familiar with the conversations.
“John Kelly knows the challenges he is facing,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton who spoke to Kelly after he took the job. “He’s not going to just stand to the side and watch the White House fall apart piece by piece.”
But several people who have spoken with him say Kelly believes that making sure Trump is getting good information is among the biggest challenges he faces as he takes over from Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman who was dismissed by the president last week.
Since starting this week, Kelly has told aides that anyone briefing the president needs to show him the information first. The Trump West Wing tradition of aides dropping off articles on the president’s desk — then waiting for him to react, with a screaming phone call or a hastily scheduled staff meeting, must stop. He will not accept aides walking into the Oval Office and telling the president information without permission — or without the information being vetted.
“He basically said, ‘The president has to get good briefings, he has to get good intelligence,’” one senior White House official said. “We have to be putting him in a position to make good decisions.”
In the West Wing, many of the president’s most controversial decisions have been attributed to bad information, partially because the president is easily swayed by the last person he has talked to — or the last thing he has read.
For example, he accused President Barack Obama of tapping his phone line in Trump Tower after seeing comments from a conservative talk show host and a Breitbart News article. He has often posted some of his most controversial tweets while watching Fox News and stewing. He has sometimes seemed to view television accounts of the news as fact more than information from people armed with classified information. He has made decisions about legal matters or major policy decisions while consulting with some aides — only to reverse them after talking to family members or friends, who he dials late at night.
He has been given information of dubious quality, from stories by GotNews.com, a blog written by a right-wing provocateur named Charles Johnson to segments from segments of debunked documentaries. He has, at times, listened to real estate friends about legislative strategy while ignoring Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
By limiting information, and making it go through proper channels, Kelly is “ensuring Trump doesn’t make his decisions based on some bullshit he watched at midnight or on Breitbart,” said Chris Whipple, who recently wrote a book on the chief-of-staff role.
A White House spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Kelly and senior West Wing officials don’t believe Trump will fully change. He is not going to stop tweeting, for example, and they expect him to keep dialing old friends in New York after hours — and that he will likely huddle with aides when Kelly is not around. Senior officials are likely to still give him articles to read without Kelly knowing. “He’s not under the impression he can tell Donald Trump, ‘Oh, you’re going to do it my way,” one Kelly associate said. “He’s not delusional about it.”
But so far, Kelly has received some buy-in to creating more discipline. Aides were startled earlier this week to see Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, at a senior staff meeting, two White House officials said. Both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, have agreed to the new order, people close to them say. Steve Bannon, the president’s strategist, has told others he thinks having a military-like chain-of-command will help the West Wing.
Aides have begun raising more issues with Kelly, several West Wing aides said, whereas they previously would avoid Priebus and go straight to the president. And Trump’s friends say he has expressed an optimistic tone on the phone, thinking the mood was improving.
“What we’ve seen in the past six months is a new president who has never governed and trying to adjust, and he is finding the right people for the right jobs,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend. “Reince was not a manager. I think he had the president’s interests at heart, and he wanted him to succeed, but you can’t learn to be a manager of a complex organization, how to hire and fire people and develop strategy, in a matter of months.”
Panetta, who served as director of the CIA and secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, said he faced many similar issues when he became Clinton’s chief of staff in 1994. Warring aides and advisers were giving the president different messages. He would stay up late and talk with friends on the phone from Arkansas. “Too many people who didn’t have a portfolio were walking in and out of the Oval,” he said.
Panetta said he created a process by which the president would tell him about his conversations, and he would ask every person briefing the president to outline the options — and that he installed a more chain-of-command system where people knew who they were reporting to and what their responsibilities were. But there were still hiccups.
“While you’re trying to develop a policy process, and you’re trying to work with people who are knowledgeable, and the president is talking to whoever he likes and decides he’s going to tweet out something, that is a recipe for chaos,” Panetta said. “The success or failure of this administration is going to depend on whether the president actually gives John Kelly the power to do what he needs to do.”
Those close to Trump say time will tell whether Kelly can succeed. Trump sometimes sours on aides after several months, and the 71-year-old billionaire has enjoyed the freewheeling style that has proven problematic in the West Wing. “In private business, Donald Trump would often defer to his managers if they are capable and competent,” Ruddy said. “He had a team who was with him for decades. There wasn’t a lot of turnover.”
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