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John Kelly's big challenge: Controlling the tweeter in chief

President Donald Trump’s White House and Defense Department lawyers had warned him against the transgender military ban for days. They were concerned about the ramifications of the policy, how military officials would respond and what legal backlash it could cause, two West Wing officials familiar with last month’s discussions said. The lawyers thought there would be plenty of time for more discussions and were analyzing arguments.

Frustrated with being “slow-walked,” in the words of one White House official, the president took to Twitter last week — jarring many in the West Wing out of complacency and startling his lawyers, Defense Department officials and West Wing aides, who learned of the change in a series of tweets.

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump began.

The administration had no plan in place, but Trump told others they would have to “get in gear” if he announced the ban first, one White House adviser who spoke to Trump said. He also said the announcement would stop the lawyers from arguing with him anymore. There is still no plan in place, and Defense Department officials have said they won’t implement the ban until guidance is given.

That is exactly the kind of situation the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, has told others he wants to avoid.

Kelly, according to West Wing officials, wants to change the organizational structure in the White House, limit access to the Oval Office, give aides clear lines of command and control what ends up on the president’s desk — and who is briefing him.

But he knows, these people said, that he cannot stop the president from tweeting and sees a goal of “pushing the tweets in the right direction,” one White House official said, by limiting who encourages them.

Instead, Kelly has said he would like to know what Trump is planning to tweet before he does so and would prefer that big decisions not be announced on Twitter — but has privately conceded there will be late-night or early-morning missives he cannot review.

Kelly is trying to put together a system in which top aides don’t learn of decisions on Twitter, one where policy and personnel decisions are not first tweeted without having procedures in place to make them happen.

“You can’t have a president who gets up at 5 a.m. and tweets policy,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff and a friend of Kelly’s. “The best thing would be if the president stopped tweeting, but that’s not going to happen.”

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

In many ways, Trump’s Twitter feed has caused him more problems than anything else in his administration. He was dragged into weeks of controversy for accusing President Barack Obama — in early-morning tweets, without proof and before setting out to play golf — of tapping his phone; widely decried for attacking a TV host for “bleeding badly” from a face-lift; criticized for lighting into his own attorney general publicly; and discouraged by congressional leaders from damaging legislative discussions with tweets.

“If you can dial back the tweets and the chaos, it is a welcome addition because the chaos has made the first six months a disaster,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.

Whether Kelly can keep Trump’s feed from causing damage, as he has largely done since being sworn in on Monday, remains unclear.

Advisers and friends say Trump is more controlled on Twitter when he is getting good advice and has people around him he trusts — instead of people giving him false information. Several people close to him noted a spate of bad news stories Thursday, including that the special counsel had issued subpoenas and was using a grand jury in Washington, that provoked nothing overnight or in the early-morning hours, when the tweets often flow.

The bursts often come, advisers say, when Trump is frustrated with his staff or news media coverage — or just wants to buck everyone and do it his way, believing he can send the message better than anyone. Or, they say, he takes to Twitter when he wants to keep a tight circle and announce his news for fear of leaks. He also will marvel at how quickly his tweets appear on the television screen and brag about his followers.

“You saw some of that discipline and structure displayed yesterday regarding all of the fake breaking news, and you saw a disciplined response from the attorney,” Bryan Lanza, a top campaign aide who is now a lobbyist, said Friday. “And then you saw a good message from the president at the rally last night.”

Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, complained privately about the president’s Twitter tactics and was often blindsided by his pronouncements.

For example, advisers believed for days that Trump was likely to pick John Pistole as FBI director. Inside the administration, three officials said, there was little initial support for Christopher Wray, the former FBI official who was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s attorney in the bridge-closing controversy. “No one really was pushing for Wray,” one senior administration official said.

After talking extensively with Christie, who sold Trump on the former FBI official’s bona fides as a lawyer, Trump decided to go with Wray without telling others on staff, advisers said. White House officials waking up to the tweet were startled, and hurriedly wrote a news release to correspond to it. Much of the president’s inner circle knew little about Wray. Trump was simply tired of the search, these people said.

Earlier this year, Trump sent a tweet criticizing China while U.S. officials were meeting with a Chinese delegation at the State Department. The Chinese officials were startled by the tweet, as were Trump’s advisers. For hours, they pinged one another about what Trump could have meant when he said: “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

It turned out, later, that Trump was angry over the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in June after being held in North Korea for 18 months, and that his tweets were nothing more than a form of fuming.

Ironically, the announcement of Kelly’s new role foreshadowed the challenges he faces.

Kelly knew he was going to be named chief of staff, officials said. But he didn’t know that Trump, sitting on the tarmac aboard Air Force One on July 28, would announce it on Twitter. Other senior administration officials first learned of the news through a buzzing phone, several officials said.

“I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” Trump said. “He is a great American.”

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