White House chief of staff John Kelly had a few things to get off his chest.
He’s not quitting or getting fired (at least not today). He’s not frustrated in his position. The viral photos of him looking existentially troubled when President Donald Trump speaks? That’s just his thinking face. And he does not want to be judged by his ability to control the president — or the president’s Twitter feed.
In a highly unusual move designed to put to rest mounting speculation about his future in the West Wing, Kelly took the podium on Thursday to conduct the daily press briefing himself, and set the record straight.
“I’m not quitting today,” he said, smiling. “I don’t believe, and I just talked to the president, I don’t think I’m being fired today.”
Since taking over the chief of staff role in July, Kelly has generally tried to stay out of the camera frame, and has had little contact with the political press, making his entrance into the briefing room all the more notable.
Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said he couldn’t remember an example of a Bush-era chief of staff conducting the daily briefing. Another former White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said he couldn’t recall a similar situation unfolding in the Obama White House.
But Kelly delivered a relaxed and upbeat performance that helped tamp down reports of tension between the president and the four-star general, described by colleagues as someone serving the president out of a steely sense of patriotic duty.
“It’s always good to mix things up and address things head on,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said after the briefing. She declined to say if the idea for Kelly’s appearance had been his, or whether it was a response to an order from the president to correct the record.
Either way, it was clear that Kelly was responding to a situation that has been eating at his boss. “The Fake News is at it again, this time trying to hurt one of the finest people I know, General John Kelly by saying he will soon be fired,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “This story is totally made up by the dishonest media. The Chief is doing a FANTASTIC job for me and, more importantly, for the USA!”
People close to Trump note that Kelly’s military approach grates on the president as much as the president’s improvisational style riles Kelly.
But on Thursday, Kelly presented little daylight between the two men, even echoing Trump’s frustrations with the news coverage of his administration. “My only frustration is when I come to work in the morning and read about things I allegedly said, or things that Trump allegedly said, or people who are gonna be fired, and it’s just not true,” Kelly said, blaming the press for false reports, and telling the reporters in the room to “get better sources.”
Kelly, a former Marine general who served as Secretary of Homeland Security and commander of the U.S. Southern Command, admitted that the job of gatekeeper to Trump is “the hardest job I’ve ever had. This is, in my view, the most important job I ever had.”
He also sought to clarify the limits of his own power. “I was not sent in, I was not brought in, to control anything but the flow of information to the president so he can make the best decisions,” he said. “I was not sent in to or brought in to control him. you should not measure my effectiveness as chief of staff by what you think I should be doing.”
Kelly also tried to downplay his role as the iron-fisted enforcer, noting he has not kept anyone from meeting with the president. “I put some organization in, with a smile on my face,” he said, smiling.
When asked about Trump’s feud with Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Kelly noted that “when members of Congress say things that are unfair or critical, the president has a right to defend himself.”
And he defended Trump’s Thursday morning tweet in which the president threatened to pull federal help from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, noting, “the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job.”
So far, Kelly has spent most of his time in the West Wing conducting a top-to-bottom review of the White House staff and their portfolios, while also trying to quell internal personnel crises, like last week’s “moron-gate” episode involving Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. On Thursday, he hinted that he would like to be seen and heard from more, while defending Trump as “a decisive guy” and “a thoughtful man.”
His performance received bipartisan kudos. “There have been so many stories about the president and his frame of mind, the tenor of insider meetings,” said Fleischer. “There’s been a pot of boiling water that needed to be cooled down.”
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman under Obama, tweeted after the briefing: “Kelly is pretty good from the podium. The WH should consider sending out someone who doesn’t consistently lie through his teeth more often.”
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