As Secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. John Kelly spent months touting a hard line on immigration. He argued publicly and privately with Congress that if there were objections to the laws, it was up to legislators to change them — not to blame enforcers on the front lines.
But after a particularly contentious meeting with Democrats on the Hill regarding DACA this past summer, he was informed by Senate leaders that he appeared not to have been “read in” to some conversations going on in the White House, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Kelly learned, had been quietly back-channeling with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Kushner, Democratic Hill aides confirmed, had discussed with the two senators a potential deal to protect Dreamers from deportation.
Kelly, according to three sources familiar with the exchange, was livid, not at the content of the discussions — he has said he personally supports DACA — but that they were going on without his knowledge. He called senior White House officials and demanded a meeting with Trump to deliver something of an ultimatum: If Kushner was going to freelance on DHS issues, the president would have to choose between his son-in-law and the four-star general serving in his Cabinet.
A White House official disputed this account, noting that Kelly was not upset — he simply wanted to be briefed on what the administration’s strategy was.
Kelly cooled off after speaking to then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and to Kushner directly, according to the sources familiar with the conversation. He ultimately never raised the issue directly with the president, or threatened him with any ultimatum.
But the incident illustrates how Kelly was concerned about a White House where the president’s son-in-law had free range to function outside his lane, even before the retired general agreed to join the West Wing.
Now, as Kelly instills a formal organizational chart on top of Trump’s formerly chaotic West Wing, he is still navigating the X-factor of Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s inchoate roles as family members-turned-staffers.
It’s not just Kelly who is uncertain of how to make the arrangement work. In recent months, according to multiple administration officials, the president has also been casually surveying people close to him about whether having his family members in the government is creating too much noise.
“Baby, you’re getting killed, this is a bad deal,” Trump has told Ivanka Trump, in front of other staffers, after soaking in the criticisms of the role his daughter is playing.
He has expressed some of his frustrations with her battered image on Twitter. “When I left Conference Room for short meetings with Japan and other countries, I asked Ivanka to hold seat. Very standard. Angela M agrees!” the president tweeted in July, defending his daughter for taking his seat at the G-20 conference in Hamburg, Germany. “If Chelsea Clinton were asked to hold the seat for her mother, as her mother gave our country away, the Fake News would say CHELSEA FOR PRES!”
Privately, Trump has asked some senior staffers their thoughts on how Kushner and Ivanka Trump can withstand the personal attacks, according to White House officials. Another White House official said the president’s concern about their current roles was not driven by any sense that they were unable to serve appropriately, but out of a desire to protect his daughter and son-in-law.
Until Kelly’s arrival, Ivanka Trump and Kushner were seen internally as the people who always had the last word with the president, especially when it came to personnel matters. Their special status irked some of their colleagues. But the concerns voiced to Trump by staffers and lawyers has been more about the legal ramifications that Kushner could inflict on the president, related to the ongoing probes into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The media glare turned back on the couple earlier this week, when the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee expressed concern that Kushner had failed to disclose his use of a private email account for White House business and that he did not turn over documents from that account to the committee.
Kushner has also come under scrutiny for attending a Trump Tower meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
Since Kelly put his firm grip on the West Wing in July, however, the role of the Trump children has shifted. Aides claim the couple was eager for a more functional work environment, and have been happy to fall in line with Kelly’s rules.
But Kushner has also complained to friends and allies about his stunted status in the new regime. He can no longer simply float in and out of the Oval Office, or function in the freewheeling role he has grown used to since the campaign, he has told associates. That marks a change of status for the former real estate scion, who before working as a free-ranging agent for his father-in-law, served as the top dog at his family-owned real estate company in Manhattan.
Kushner’s stand-alone Office of American Innovation, the platform from which he serves as the main point of contact for the tech industry, has received more “scrutiny” since Kelly started, according to a senior administration official.
Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, has been in recent weeks working solely on the issues firmly in her portfolio. She has made a series of public appearances focused on her pet issue of STEM education, and worked the Hill on behalf of the two issues on which she has staked her reputation as an advocate for women’s issues: passing a child-care tax credit and paid family leave.
Administration officials have tried to downplay any personal friction between Kelly and Kushner, the man once seen as a “first among equals” in a West Wing defined by competing power centers.
“Gen. Kelly genuinely likes and respects Jared,” said one administration official familiar with the situation. “They have worked together well since Day One.” In his role as Sunday show surrogate, Kelly last May even forcefully defended Kushner’s behavior on the campaign as a point of contact for foreign governments.
“There’s a lot of different ways to communicate, back-channel publicly with other countries,” Kelly told “Meet The Press” host Chuck Todd in May, when pressed on reports that Kushner had helped set up a back-channel of communication with the Russians during the 2016 campaign. “I don’t see any issue here relative to Jared.”
In a statement to POLITICO, Kelly said, “Jared is a valued member of the White House staff.”
One administration pushed back against the interpretation of Kushner’s sidelined role. In the old world order, the official said, the Oval Office often functioned like Grand Central Terminal at rush hour — filled with aides hanging around because they were afraid of being cut out of a disorganized information loop if they did not attend every meeting. Under Kelly’s leadership, the aide said, Kushner and others have been relieved to sit out meetings that are outside their distinct portfolios and focus on their own work. Kushner, in recent weeks, has been spending his time working on issues related to NAFTA and Middle East peace, a White House aide said.
For now, Kelly is making it work. But it’s a complicated relationship by nature.
“Being family members always put them in a different category,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who worked with Kelly when he served as Defense Secretary and Kelly was his senior military assistant. “Nevertheless, if you’re going to run the White House and be able to serve the president, there’s a certain amount of discipline family members have to recognize.”
Panetta said he sympathized with Kelly’s challenge, and remembered imposing more restrictions on Hillary Clinton’s advisory role in her husband’s administration. “She was willing to accept greater discipline,” he recalled.
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