John F. Kelly has an important-sounding title, White House chief of staff, but he had very limited contact with President Trump before taking the job, which he has held for a very limited time. He was not part of the campaign and only met the president during the transition, when he was named to some Cabinet post. Homeland Security, maybe?
If Kelly exits the White House — The Washington Post reported Friday that he is willing to resign — expect Trump's remaining team to do what it often does to former aides: downplay their significance.
The reasons vary. Sometimes the goal is to discredit an ally-turned-critic. Other times the objective is to distance Trump from someone who appears to have become a liability. Another aim might be to counter the perception (reality) that retaining key staffers has been a challenge.
Whatever the motivation, the message is that someone who leaves Trump's orbit probably was not very important in the first place.
Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah read from this familiar script Thursday when asked during a media briefing about Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former director of communications at the White House Office of Public Liaison.
“She had limited contact with the president while here,” Shah said.
Translation: Manigault Newman does not know what she's talking about when she says the Trump White House is “not going to be okay,” as she did on “Celebrity Big Brother,” because she was never really involved.
Sean Spicer, when he was the White House press secretary, memorably claimed during one briefing that Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
Spicer also described former national security adviser Michael Flynn as “a volunteer of the campaign” and dismissed longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone as someone who “worked briefly on the campaign.”
Remember George Papadopoulos, the former foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to making a false statement to FBI investigators? White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hardly does, even though Trump once touted him as an “excellent guy” in an interview with The Post's editorial board.
“I'm telling you that he was a volunteer member of an advisory council that literally met one time,” Sanders told reporters in October.
What about Carter Page, another former foreign policy adviser, whose contacts with Russians were probed by the FBI during the presidential race? Trump campaign communications director Jason Miller told the Hill in September 2016 that Page had “never been a part of our campaign, period.”
“Carter Page is an individual who the president-elect does not know,” Spicer said at a news conference in January 2017.
“I don't think I've ever spoken to him,” Trump added the next month. “I don't think I've ever met him.”
Lately, Trump has decided that Page was part of the team after all, arguing that the FBI's surveillance of Page amounted to inappropriate spying on the Trump campaign.
No one has been erased from Trump history more thoroughly than former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who, according to the president, “had very little to do with our historic victory.” Bannon was chief executive of Trump's campaign.
“Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue,” Trump said in January.
“His role has been greatly exaggerated,” White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said of Bannon on CNN last month.
Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley told CNN in a separate interview that “obviously, over the course of Mr. Bannon's time in the White House, you've seen the results that he produced, which was zero.”
If the Rob Porter episode does spell the end for Kelly, we can guess how the next scene will play out. The president's top aide will be cast as a latecomer whose impact on the White House was overstated.