He was a stately general called in to replace the omnishambles with order. But since his first day as White House chief of staff, John Kelly’s grasp on power in Trumpworld has been tenuous.
Now, as Trump enters the back end of his first term in office, determined to shake up his team at the senior ranks and facing a Democratic-run House, Kelly’s grasp has been exposed as flimsier than ever. With the president mangling an overseas trip and infighting among White House staff nearing Civil War-like levels, the chief of staff appears to be more of a bystander to the chaos than a manager of it. No one, at this juncture, is particularly surprised.
“The people who think they can go in and control things are nuts,” a former senior Trump White House official told The Daily Beast. “There was this whole narrative that Kelly was supposed to be ‘the guy.’ Yeah, for like an hour,” I think it took him like a week to realize that, and they’ve been operating in that reality ever since.”
Kelly’s own future in the White House has long been the subject of speculation. And in the aftermath of the midterms, that is no different. Rumors have swirled, once more, that he soon may be out the door, though he and the president publicly have said he’ll stay around through the 2020 elections.
But the power vacuum that has been created in the absence of his leadership is already being filled by other key players. Chief among them is Melania Trump, who on Tuesday publicly advised, through a spokeswoman, that a top national security official be ousted—a move rarely, if ever, seen from a first lady’s office.
The official, Deputy National Security Advisor Mira Ricardel, joined the National Security Council earlier this year when National Security Advisor John Bolton came to the administration. A veteran of at Boeing and the George W. Bush Pentagon, she developed a long list of enemies both in and out of Trumpworld. Two individuals who worked for the Bush administration said many of their colleagues distanced themselves from Ricardel when she chose to work for Trump, underscoring the bad blood between much of the current and last Republican administrations.
Ricardel’s enemies also include allies of Defense Secretary James Mattis, with whom she clashed in her early days at the NSC. One individual who worked at the Pentagon during the Trump transition said he witnessed first-hand the infighting between Ricardel and Mattis, recalling each leaking information on the other to the media.
“I remember it well. It got really nasty and I was sort of caught in the middle of it all,” he said. “The short version of the story is Mattis threatened to quit or not take the job if Mira was going to be involved. I was one of the people that got booted when they got rid of Mira. All her people got booted.”
On Tuesday, the first lady added herself to the lengthy list of Ricardel opponents. Earlier in the day, it was reported that she had pushed the president to fire Ricardel after the two women had clashed over the first lady’s Africa tour last month. By the afternoon, her office made it official. “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that [Ricardel] no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House,” the statement read.
The moment demonstrated what those who know the first lady well have been insisting for ages: that she is a more savvy and ruthless political operator in her husband’s administration than many usually give her credit for. And it suggested that she saw an opening in Kelly’s increasing absence.
“She can be a knife fighter… She’s a Trump [after all],” a source close to Melania told The Daily Beast. “But past experiences have shown that her actions are well thought out and that all outcomes, intentional or unintentional, are considered.”
Soon after the first lady’s statement, a Wall Street Journal reporter tweeted that security guards had escorted Ricardel from the White House grounds, signaling the end of her employment. But White House officials quickly pushed back to a host of reporters, including at The Daily Beast, noting that Ricardel was still at her desk. The Journal quickly retracted its story.
Nonetheless, to veterans of past White Houses, it resembled a remarkable breakdown of the internal chain of command. To veterans of the White House present, it was merely the latest of the power squabbles and chronic backstabbing persisting under the watch of Kelly, the man installed last year with an explicit mandate to quell the chaos and palace intrigue.
“At some point you walk into the White House and everyone thinks it will all be different, but the reality is, it is what it is,” said the former senior Trump White House official.
The White House did not return a request for comment. But few would dispute publicly the idea that the past year-plus of the Kelly regime failed to bring the much-desired calm and composure that was the goal behind his hiring.
In fact, many in the White House regularly argue that the backbiting and instability have only grown worse since Kelly took over and more pronounced since the midterms. In the past few days there has been fresh reporting that Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, a prominent Kelly ally and a frequent target of Trump’s ire, is on her way out. And it is widely believed that if Nielsen is kicked to the curb, Kelly will quickly follow her out the door.
Trump, meanwhile, is reportedly livid with the results of the election and the press coverage of his trip to Paris, during which he skipped a ceremony honoring the end of World War I because of weather conditions.
Brewing in his discontent, the president is said to be eager to shake up his staff, and has entertained replacing Kelly with Nick Ayers, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff. But even that potential shift in personnel is loaded with possible drama and complications.
Ayers has gained a reputation in Republican circles for years as an astute, cut-throat operative—who isn’t shy about endorsing the ouster of conservative Trump critics. In private remarks leaked to Politico last year, Ayers vented against certain fellow Republicans, and publicly fantasized about a “purge” of GOP lawmakers who weren’t sufficiently rallying around the president’s priorities.
With additional reporting by Kim Dozier, Betsy Woodruff, and Erin Banco