President Donald Trump was already mad at his chief of staff, John Kelly, when explosive details of Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book “Fear” landed on Tuesday — including disparaging comments Kelly reportedly made about his boss.
The episode upset the delicate equilibrium between Trump, who hates to be managed, and Kelly, who has largely accepted being sidelined in the West Wing, instead renewing the friction between a president who demands loyalty, and a chief of staff who Trump and his allies believe is more concerned with protecting his own reputation.
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Kelly had managed to tamp down speculation about his imminent departure from the White House with an internal announcement in late July that he had agreed to stay on as chief of staff through the 2020 re-election campaign, according to more than half a dozen current and former White House officials and people close to Trump, but the publication of his reported remarks in Woodward’s book is already stoking them again.
“We are now able to count the grains of sand left in the hourglass,” one former administration official predicted of Kelly. “That’s what his time in the White House has been: an hourglass that gets turned over and reset by Trump at his discretion.”
Kelly’s July announcement was met with skepticism internally at the time. Even the president was in on the joke. The day Kelly broadcast his intentions to White House aides at a senior staff meeting, Trump acknowledged the announcement with a shrug. “It’s good for me through the midterms,” he told associates, according to a Trump friend.
In the Woodward book, Kelly is quoted railing against the president during a meeting at the White House. “He’s an idiot,” Kelly reportedly told a group of colleagues. “It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
The excerpts from Woodward’s book came on the heels of the president’s fury about a story in the New York Times detailing how Kelly, a retired Marine general, phoned his boss at 7 a.m. to push the president to let staff run a statement following the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain. Trump – who initially said no – viewed that detail as a self-serving leak, according to sources close to the president.
But one-two punch of the handling of the McCain funeral — which made Kelly the face of a respectful goodbye — and then a book by a journalist that Trump personally respects may have unsettled that semi-functional detente.
Some White House aides suggested that Kelly’s denial would strengthen the bunker mentality of the president and top aides who still work in the White House, binding them closer together against former aides indiscreetly gabbing to the agents of “fake news.”
“It’s just another bad book. He’s had a lot of credibility problems,” Trump told The Daily Caller in an interview Tuesday afternoon.
The White House released two statements about the Woodward book, one from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and one from Kelly. Both statements dismissed the book as 448 pages of fabricated stories.
“The idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true,” Kelly said, recycling a statement he gave last spring after his comments were originally reported by NBC News. “He always knows where I stand, and he and I both know this story is total BS.”
The strongly worded statement was a contrast to how former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson handled an NBC News report last year that he had called the president a “fucking moron.” Tillerson held a press conference to respond to the report, but refused to deny that he had referred to Trump as a moron.
That chapter marked the beginning of the end of his short tenure in the Trump administration.
Kelly, by contrast, has weathered similar reports by denying them outright and taking a hands off approach to managing a commander-in-chief who prefers to work around his own chief of staff. Though aides have always been skeptical that Kelly was long for the job, one former White House official as recently as last week said Kelly’s relaxed approach was close to an ideal situation from the president’s point of view — one that gives him free reign in the White House and a punching bag when things go awry.
Most of the Trump advisers quoted disparaging the president in excerpts of the book released Tuesday left the West Wing long ago. That includes Trump’s former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, who reportedly swiped papers off the president’s desk to prevent him from pulling out of NAFTA as well as a South Korean trade deal, and former staff secretary Rob Porter, who, in Woodward’s telling, described working in the Trump White House as “walking along a cliff perpetually.”
Kelly, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, is one of the few people cited by Woodward still remaining in the White House.
Renowned for his colorful quotes as an active duty Marine, Mattis has developed a reputation for discretion as Pentagon chief. Woodward is the first journalist to capture him disparaging the president, describing him as a “fifth or sixth grader” after Trump reportedly questioned the thinking behind an American intelligence operation that allows the U.S. to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds.
Mattis denied the comments in a statement late on Tuesday: “The contemptuous words about the president attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence.”
Trump tweeted Mattis’ as well as Kelly’s statements on Tuesday night — his only response thus far on Twitter, his preferred medium for communicating with his supporters.
“Fear” is not the only book that Trump has been worried about recently, according to one White House official. He has also asked aides about another upcoming book about the White House by CBS news correspondent Major Garrett and wondered out loud whether or not he should participate in some of the books about his administration.
So far, aides have convinced him not to, telling him that presidential participation in books about their administrations are for leaders who do not regularly engage with the public and with the press, the way he does on Twitter. Aides have told him he has no need to cooperate with journalists because he is engaging all the time.
Trump didn’t speak to Woodward, who told the president in an August phone call released by the Washington Post that he tried to reach the president through multiple channels, including asking South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to intervene. Unlike the Obama White House, the Trump White House didn’t play a role in managing Woodward’s access to senior officials – a move that left staff to act as free agents.
“He hooked somebody, and that put the fear of God in everyone else,” a former administration official told POLITICO in July.
Kelly’s reported comments in Woodward’s book are not the first time that comments made privately about the boss or his children have led to a major falling out. “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” by Michael Wolff, led Trump to publicly denounce his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Wolff quoted Bannon calling Donald Trump Jr.’s campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer “treasonous” and describing presidential daughter Ivanka Trump as “dumb as a brick.”
Trump, in response, declared in a presidential statement that Bannon had “lost his mind.”
In that case, however, Bannon had spoken on the record to Wolff, and did not denounce his own quotes as fabrications. By contrast, Sanders, in her statement, dismissed the Woodward revelations as nothing more than “former disgruntled employees” venting in order “make the president look bad.”
She added: “Democrats and their allies in the media understand the president’s policies are working and with success like this, no one can be him in 2020 – not even close.”