President Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly is tightening his grip on the West Wing, thinning staff he considers extraneous while bringing in new blood to professionalize a White House that has suffered from internal turmoil.
For the new hires, the retired general is looking to seasoned political hands rather than the neophytes who made up the first wave of aides brought in by Trump, many of whom never had clear portfolios, according to eight current and former White House officials.
Mercedes Schlapp, wife of American Conservative Union chairman Matthew Schlapp, is expected to be Kelly’s first high-profile new addition. She’s in talks to join the White House in a senior role in the communications department, according to three White House officials with knowledge of the situation.
It’s the latest sign of Kelly’s transformation of the West Wing from a drama-filled social hub into a more buttoned-down workplace that resembles previous administrations, at least in structure and process.
“General Kelly is methodically looking at the portfolios of all the senior level staff and identifying redundancies and clarifying roles so that everyone has a clearly defined lane,” said one current White House official.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Trump created a number of new senior positions and titles for people who came into the West Wing from his campaign, including director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison – a role created for former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault.
Manigault, who doesn’t report to the main White House press operation, has resisted Kelly’s efforts to restrict access to the Oval Office and is among those attracting particular attention – especially because, one White House official said, she’s been “stirring up” Trump.
Trump’s longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller, who’s privately griped about Kelly’s clampdown on access to the president, is already preparing to leave his role as director of Oval Office operations—a title that covered a range of responsibilities, from taking photographs of visitors to screening phone calls and, infamously, delivering a termination letter to former FBI director James Comey in May.
Trump’s new chief of staff has also taken aim at aides close to Bannon, who left in mid-August amid the furor that followed the president’s handling of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead. He’s returned to his old role running Breitbart News, which he left to join Trump’s campaign last year.
Kelly’s targets include Sebastian Gorka, a White House counterterrorism advisor who reported to Bannon and worked in his “war room.” Kelly was concerned about Gorka’s role as a freelance counterterrorism advisor independent of the National Security Council. Even Trump, who was a fan of Gorka’s contentious appearances on cable news, questioned Gorka’s day-to-day duties and would tell aides, “I don’t know what Gorka does, but he’s so good on TV,” according to a former White House official.
Gorka resigned in late August, a week after Bannon left. Like Bannon, HE has since returned to Breitbart News. Deputy political strategist Andrew Surabian, a senior member of the “war room,” also resigned last month after Bannon’s departure, and will become a senior adviser to pro-Trump Super PAC “Great America Alliance.
Other aides who reported to Bannon have been in limbo since he departed. Bannon’s policy aide Julia Hahn requested a move to the press department, where she’s asked to focus primarily on immigration, according to a White House official. Since Bannon’s departure, she has aligned herself with senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, who is taking a leading role in crafting Trump’s immigration agenda, according to aides.
Kelly also succeeded in halting plans for controversial former Milwaukee County sheriff, David Clarke Jr., to join the administration, a move that had been supported by Bannon and Trump himself.
A spokesman for Clarke, who resigned as sheriff on Aug. 31, had already begun informing people in Washington about the White House gig when Kelly scuttled the appointment. On Tuesday, the pro-Trump super PAC America First Strategies announced that Clarke would join as communications director and adviser.
The role for Mercedes Schlapp, a former Fox News contributor who served in the George W. Bush administration as a spokesperson for Spanish-language media outlets, has yet to be defined. The entire communications team is slated to be reorganized, according to a White House official and a person close to the administration. Schlapp’s position will be decided once that process is complete.
Trump spoke warmly about her support for him in his speech last winter at CPAC, the American Conservative Union’s signature annual event. “I want to thank Matt Schlapp and his very, very incredible wife and boss, Mercedes,” Trump said. “When I watch them on television defending me, nobody has a chance.”
Kelly, his principal deputy chief of staff Kirstjen Nielsen and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell are “big fans” of Schlapp, according to a person familiar with the discussions about her role.
The addition of Schlapp, a well-known Washington figure who works as a consultant for her own public affairs firm Cove Strategies, to the West Wing has been discussed for weeks internally, according to the people familiar with the conversations. Schlapp recently ended her role as a contributor to Fox News Channel, according to Fox News spokeswoman Caley Cronin.
Schlapp declined to comment.
Nielsen, who worked under Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security as his chief of staff, was among those whose appointments were formally announced by the White House on Wednesday.
Zachary Fuentes, a former military assistant to Kelly at DHS, will serve as a special assistant to the president and assistant to the chief of staff.
Trump named Kelly, the former Homeland Security secretary, as his chief of staff after ousting Reince Priebus from the position in July.
The White House on Wednesday also named two additions to its military office, promoting Daniel Walsh to deputy assistant to the president and director of the military office, and tapping Deputy Commander Capt. Keith Davids from Naval Special Warfare Command to serve as a special assistant to the president and deputy director of the military office.
Robert “Bobby” Peede, former deputy assistant to Vice President Mike Pence and director of vice presidential advance, was promoted to serve as deputy assistant to the president and director of presidential advance.
Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.
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