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Kelly's military approach to the media

When it comes to the media, new White House chief of staff John Kelly is a military man at heart, according to those who know him and have dealt with him in the past.

Operating out of the Pentagon, the former Marine Corps general and head of the U.S. Southern Command learned to respect members of the press but felt burned when they didn’t cover the news of what was under his command — including Guantanamo Bay — in what he considered a fair way.

His new challenge, some of those people say, is that the political writers in the White House are a different breed than their Pentagon counterparts, who tend to have deep groundings in defense policy. And Kelly’s value system may be strained in his new job — both by the press corps and the boss he will serve.

To some extent, his brief tenure as Homeland Security secretary was a period of adjustment to dealing with a more politically oriented media, as he was on the front line defending some of President Donald Trump’s more controversial moves like the travel ban and crackdown on illegal immigration.

“In his time at DHS, he’s been a bit frustrated with the press coverage in some aspects but he doesn’t think there should be less of it,” explained David Lapan, his DHS spokesperson who has worked with Kelly for more than 10 years. “His concern was making sure it was accurate.”

Kelly’s preference for straight shooting was reflected in his first major decision as chief of staff, pushing out President Donald Trump’s newly minted communications director Anthony Scaramucci. The Mooch, as he was nicknamed, was widely viewed as the kind of fast-talking, political-oriented communicator that Kelly distrusts. In his experience with the Marines, Kelly came from a culture where if “we just tell the truth, that’s enough,” Lapan said.

To the extent that he’s able, Kelly will try to develop more of a transactional, two-way approach to media relations, according to those who’ve dealt with him over the years. He’ll respect them, if they respect him.

“Listen, I respect them enormously,” Kelly once told his transition “Sherpa,” Blain Rethmeier, Rethmeier recalled in an interview.

“I would characterize [Kelly’s feelings] as a deep respect for the media and understanding there is an important job for them to do, and in order for them to do it, it takes that trust,” Rethmeier said.

While all of his former colleagues were sure about Kelly’s personal respect for the press, they weren’t as sure about how he would handle a president who routinely calls outlets “fake news,” has trafficked in conspiracy theories, tweets out videos of himself literally beating up the logo of a news organization, and openly mused about opening up libel laws.

Despite his appreciation of the role of the media, Kelly is, at heart, a military man who respects the chain of command, and thus Trump’s role as commander in chief, those who know him say.

Should Kelly be presented with a situation where the president wishes to ban an outlet from the White House, Kelly would likely carry out the president’s directive, Lapan said.

“I think he would push back against banning a reporter from the briefing room, but he also recognizes that ultimately the president is the decision maker and there is a time to have internal discussions and disagreements,” Lapan said. “But at the end of the day … Gen. Kelly is one to carry out those orders and directions, but he certainly will have a say.”

Before taking his DHS post, Kelly worked with two secretaries of defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who were known for being open with the press. It was from them, both reporters and those who worked alongside him say, that Kelly developed his communication strategies.

“Gates and Panetta were heavily influential in how he thinks about the media,” said Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe, who has covered Kelly extensively. “It made him understand the importance of doing [media] and how to be strategic about it.”

Gates and Panetta valued their relationships with individual reporters and saw them as crucial to advancing their agendas, a lesson Kelly has taken to heart, said Geoff Morrell, former Pentagon Press Secretary in the Obama administration.

“He’s had excellent role models in media engagement and seen firsthand the benefits of having a good working relationship with reporters. He knows that if you treat them as professionals and with respect that they will give you and your agenda a fairer shake,” Morrell said.

At the Pentagon, Kelly was known to have long off-the-record chats with reporters while traveling with the secretaries, and built personal relationships with reporters including ABC’s Martha Raddatz, the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes and The New York Times’ Thom Shanker, to the point where they would call Kelly directly even after he became secretary of Homeland Security, said Lapan.

Unlike the Pentagon, White House or State Department, the Department of Homeland Security does not have a dedicated press corps. The agency is covered by a hodgepodge of reporters whose beats involve defense, immigration and transportation. But Kelly did try to improve relations, directing his staff to engage more with the press and instituting a new weekly press briefings, which reporters said they found helpful.

But Kelly ultimately sees the relationship with the media as a two-way street. He tries to be transparent and forthcoming those who have worked with him said, but he gets angry if he feels burned, colleagues say.

One place where he felt the coverage to be unfair was the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, which he oversaw as head of the U.S. Southern Command, his former colleagues say. Kelly felt he gave journalists access to the facility and wanted to show that the facility was being run in accordance with the law. But coverage trended toward the negative.

“Where the press got sideways with him is he would trust them, give them access, and then be burned by it,” Rethmeier said.

One thing Kelly has little patience for is leaks — but mainly of the classified nature.

“I believe when you leak the kind of information that seems to be routinely leaked – high, high level of classification… I think it’s darn close to treason,” Kelly told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May.

But Lapan put it this way: “When he’s talking about treason he’s talking about those types of leaks, not the personal score settling, the rumors, those types of leaks. I’d also say as someone who has operated in and around Washington for a long time he understands that’s just the nature and there will always be leaks. You’re not going to stop leaks but you should focus your attention on the ones that are serious and violate the law.”

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