White House chief of staff John Kelly spent this week in Bedminster, N.J., pondering changes in the West Wing, according to four White House officials.
Kelly summoned aides to President Donald Trump’s golf club there to ask about their portfolios and make suggestions on how to make the West Wing communicate better and get more done, while giving people clear responsibilities and then holding them accountable. The role of chief strategist Steve Bannon has come under particular scrutiny in several conversations, particularly because he has a large staff, including an outside public relations expert, but no specific duties.
In a number of daily meetings, Kelly generated a list of concerns, including aides without clear portfolios, decisions that aren’t made with proper vetting and internal fights — particularly a sustained campaign against national security adviser H.R. McMaster. He has met with top aides, including the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, about making changes, the four officials say. In some of the encounters, he has suggested that people should be more concerned with the president’s agenda and less concerned with their own.
Kelly, a former Marine general, has also raised concerns about the administration’s communications, personnel practices and political operations, these officials said. He has said there have been too many internal fights over appointments, and that they need to speed up. He has been vague about exactly what he wants, telling aides he is still studying the White House, but has made clear “that the place will be different soon,” one senior administration official said. He has asked aides to deliver reports back — and has asked them how they would improve the West Wing.
He has heard a number of complaints about Bannon, who has remained in Washington during the president’s stay in Bedminster, and was displeased by a TV performance from Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide, who questioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments about the use of military force against North Korea. He has also been told of concerns that aides are given identical or competing assignments — with no one sure who is in charge.
A reorganization that rids the White House of troublemakers would be Kelly’s first major move as chief of staff, and it appears he is looking to act with the swiftness of a military officer.
“Too many people who populated the West Wing didn’t have their Number One priority as expert service for the president and therefore the country and were too concerned about the inside game,” said Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist close to the White House. “When a White House turns into this extent of factions, it really destroys your ability to implement an agenda.”
Schlapp, a former aide to President George W. Bush who supports Trump, said many conservatives would support changes if they improved the operation.
The increased chatter has raised eyebrows inside the White House about Bannon’s future. The chief strategist has stayed in Washington while many of the senior aides have been in New Jersey. Aides in Bedminster and in Washington say they fear Bannon is spreading damaging information about his colleagues.
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, did not address specifics about staffing but said, “Like any new head of an office, General Kelly is interested in learning how the systems currently function and how they can be improved.”
The president himself was unstinting in praising his new chief of staff on Friday.
“General Kelly has done a fantastic job,” Trump said. “‘Chief,’ I call him, ‘Chief.’ He’s a respected man, he’s a four-star general from the Marines, and he carries himself like a four-star from the Marines.”
To be sure, the conversations are not surprising for a new chief of staff. Trump charged Kelly with bringing order to the White House, though he has resisted past attempts at more structure.
Kelly would have to still get buy-in from a mercurial Trump for any major moves.
“He has to reorganize the place and make it report to him, because they haven’t been able to pass legislation, prioritize Trump’s agenda or get everyone on the same page,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about the role of chief of staff. “The big problem, though, is Trump himself.”
Whipple said Kelly hadn’t been able to keep the president in check, particularly on Twitter, in the middle of an international crisis and had seen uneven progress at best.
Aides familiar with Kelly’s conversations say he has tried to get “under the hood,” in the words of one. Other top aides, including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, the White House director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, and others are expected to visit with Kelly. He has held no-nonsense meetings, these people said, quickly dispensing with courtesies and asking specific questions — how many people are in each department, what are the department’s goals, how success is measured and how the department is aligned with the president’s agenda.
“Of course Kelly is and should be auditing everyone and figuring out what everyone’s role is and if people are in the right place,” one senior administration official said. “That’s what he is doing.”
What Kelly has essentially tried to decipher is why the West Wing isn’t working properly. He is asking aides about those they think aren’t team players — and has heard about Bannon. Four White House officials said his outside public relations apparatus rattles them — and they believe he is behind attempts to smear national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Bannon has told others he is not, but he has serious policy disagreements with McMaster.
Though several presidential aides said they expect the new chief of staff to push Bannon out in the coming weeks, Bannon has survived many ups and downs in the Trump White House and has consciously lowered his profile over the past two months to avoid angering the president.
Bannon, who served as campaign chairman for the final three months of the election, has been widely credited with steering the Trump campaign to victory. He is the subject of a new book by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green. He has told others he will get along well with Kelly, even though other West Wing aides disagree with that assessment, and he has denied smearing McMaster. Trade restrictions on China that Bannon heavily worked on are expected to be announced Monday, a sign of his continued influence.
The strategist has lowered his profile, but it’s unclear what his future is. He has mused to political associates about life after the White House, people who have spoken to him say.
Schlapp, who supports the president’s agenda, said Kelly could bring much-needed discipline to the staff, a sentiment shared by a number of other West Wing aides and strategists.
“It’s been hard as a supporter to watch some of the theatrics that were taking place in the West Wing,” Schlapp said. “It’s hard for someone to witness the leaking, the acrimony spilling out into the press and the failure to leverage Trump’s supporters for his agenda. There are so many things that can be done.”