The message from White House chief of staff John Kelly was clear when he entered the press briefing room to banter with reporters Thursday: Everything is going as planned.
During a question and answer session that the retired four-star Marine general clearly enjoyed, Kelly assured Washington that the litany of reports about his unhappiness were wrong and that “unless things change,” he is here to stay.
“I would just offer to you that although I read it all the time pretty consistently, I’m not quitting today,” he said to laughs. “And I just talked to the President. I don’t think I’m being fired today.”
A White House official said Thursday night that President Donald Trump wanted his chief of staff to appear at the daily White House press briefing, and after watching, said Kelly did a good job in his maiden voyage before the cameras.
Kelly does not love the spotlight, as we’ve seen over the last 11 weeks, but was following the President’s direction to put to rest the reports of turmoil in the West Wing and to “speak with authority” on questions concerning Iran and North Korea.
The fact that Kelly had to come out and make that statement laid bare the fact that job security is hard to come by in the Trump White House. And it underscores how things are far from normal. Most chiefs of staff are background players who rarely enter the press briefing room, especially to proclaim how happy they are in their job and how the President is “deep in thought” and decisive.
But such is the position that President Donald Trump’s subordinates regularly find themselves in. Rex Tillerson, a secretary of state not known for his eagerness to talk with the media, stepped in front of cameras earlier this month to reaffirm his commitment to Trump after multiple outlets reported that he called the President a “moron” after a meeting earlier this summer.
“He loves this country. He puts Americans and America First. He’s smart,” Tillerson said.
A series of reports have described Kelly as frustrated with Trump, miserable and on the brink of quitting. Kelly said Thursday that those reports were false and, more directly, annoying.
“I am not so frustrated in this job that I’m thinking of leaving,” Kelly said, adding that the incessant reports have bothered him.
A source familiar with internal discussions confirmed that Kelly’s appearance was to “correct and address the rumors floating out there.”
At times, Kelly appeared to echo his boss by slamming the media, defending the president’s tweets as “exactly accurate” and taking a bellicose line on North Korea.
“It is astounding to me about how much is misreported,” Kelly said. “I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are operating off of contacts, leaks, whatever you call them, but I would just offer to you the advice, I would say, maybe develop some better sources.”
Backing from Trump
Kelly’s standing has drawn some focus from Trump, too.
“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 over a series of messages 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!”
After Kelly’s briefing, Trump offered more praise.
“We are deeply fortunate that he is now here at the White House as our chief of staff,” Trump said as he formally introduced Kirstjen Nielsen as his nominee for Kelly’s previous job as homeland security secretary.
Kelly stepped into the West Wing earlier this year after Reince Priebus was let go from what was a chaotic and leaking White House. Kelly brought more structure to the West Wing and cleaned house, getting rid of several Trump aides who, in his view, were working against the President or providing little benefit.
Though the Trump White House appeared more controlled early in Kelly’s tenure, that period didn’t last long with Trump continuing to use his Twitter account to scold Republican leaders, ailing Puerto Ricans and just about anybody whom he feels has crossed him.
Kelly, sources have told CNN, has tried to control Trump’s tweeting, but on Thursday the chief of staff defended Trump’s 140-character salvos.
“When members of Congress say things that are unfair or critical, the President has a right to defend himself,” Kelly said, defending Trump’s ongoing back and forth with Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the retiring chair of the Senate foreign relations committee.
Kelly added that while his job is to bring order — “with a smile on my face,” he joked — it isn’t to control or change the President.
“I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our President so that he can make the best decisions,” Kelly said, adding that he restricts “no one… from going in to see him,” contrary to reports.
“I was not brought in to control him,” Kelly said, “and you should not measure my effectiveness as a chief of staff by what you think I should be doing.”
About those pictures
The perception of a frustrated and dismayed Kelly has stemmed from more than just reports. It has also come from photos and video of the chief of staff.
As Trump blamed the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on “both sides” of the conflict during a press briefing earlier this summer in New York, Kelly was seen looking down at his shoes, seemingly dismayed by what amounted to a somewhat out of control exchange with reporters.
And as Trump delivered a bellicose speech at the United Nations this summer, photographers captured Kelly holding his head and looking down, seemingly frustrated or mad at the tone of Trump’s remarks.
Kelly made light of those moments on Thursday.
“You guys with the cameras,” he said look at the photographers in the room, “always catch me when I’m thinking hard, and it looks like I’m frustrated and mad.”