Amid White House turmoil, Kelly’s clout dwindles


Associated Press

WASHINGTON

When President Donald Trump made a congratulatory phone call to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, White House chief of staff John Kelly wasn’t on the line.

When Trump tapped John Bolton to be his next national security adviser, Kelly wasn’t in the room.

And when Trump spent a Mar-a-Lago weekend stewing over immigration and trade, Kelly wasn’t in sight.

Kelly, once empowered to bring order to a turbulent West Wing, has receded from view, his clout diminished, his word less trusted by staff and his guidance less tolerated by an increasingly go-it-alone president.

Emboldened in his job, Trump has rebelled against Kelly’s restrictions and mused about doing away with the chief of staff post entirely. It’s all leading White House staffers and Trump allies to believe that Kelly is working on borrowed time.

In recent weeks, Trump has governed at breakneck pace, ousting aides and issuing surprise policy announcements on Twitter, recreating the helter-skelter feel of his first months in office. Kelly’s allies maintain that his retreat is strategic. They suggest that the belief that Kelly was Trump’s savior was an overstated idea all along and that the chief of staff is now content to loosen the reins and allow an increasingly comfortable president to govern from his gut.

But those close to the president say that Trump has increasingly expressed fatigue at Kelly’s attempts to shackle him and that while Trump is not ready to fire Kelly, he has begun gradually freezing out his top aide.

Trump recently told one confidant that he was “tired of being told no” by Kelly and has instead chosen to simply not tell Kelly things at all, according to a person who was not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Trump’s West Wing, once the rumors begin that an aide’s exit is forthcoming, the “stink” on that staffer never leaves, according to one of the nearly dozen White House aides, former administration officials and outside advisers who spoke to The Associated Press under the same conditions.

As Kelly’s public profile and behind-the-scenes influence has faded, speculation has risen that chaos could return.

“It’s not tenable for Kelly to remain in this position so weakened,” said Chris Whipple, author of “Gatekeepers,” a history of modern White House chiefs of staff. “More than any of his predecessors, Donald Trump needs an empowered chief of staff to tell him what he does not want to hear. Trump wants to run the White House like the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and it’s simply not going to work.”

Kelly was once a fixture at the president’s side, but Trump has now cut him out of a number of important decisions.

For months, Kelly made it a practice to listen in to many of the president’s calls, particularly with world leaders. While he is still on the line for some of those conversations, Kelly was not part of the call Trump made to Putin last month from the White House residence during which Trump ignored advisers’ advice against congratulating the Russian president on his re-election.

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