Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, has had a rocky tenure at Trump’s side, where he has tried to instill discipline but found it impossible to contain the chaos often created by the president, whose life has been guided by gut instincts.
Kelly had been widely expected by many Trump associates to leave his job this summer, either because he had tired of the intense post or the president had tired of him — or both. But his announcement this week, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, ends for now what had become rampant chatter in Washington about Kelly’s fate.
Trump and Kelly have privately argued at times and complained about one another to confidants. But the relationship between generational peers — Trump is 72, and Kelly is 68 — appeared to have stabilized somewhat in recent months, as the president felt more empowered to call his own shots and the chief loosened some of his restraints. They also have bonded over shared grievances toward some members of the media and various political figures, according to people close to them.
On Monday, Trump marked Kelly’s anniversary by posting to Twitter a photo of the two men smiling in the Oval Office with the caption “Congratulations to General John Kelly. Today we celebrate his first full year as @WhiteHouse Chief of Staff!”
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, reacted to Kelly’s announcement by writing in an email, “Hail to the Chief.”
“His leadership has made a difference: the team is tighter and the process more streamlined and sophisticated,” Conway added. “The fact that he is not super-glued to the President’s side is a sign of progress and evolution, even as he spends as much time with the President as anyone. General Kelly is in his fifth decade of public service, and commands respect on Capitol Hill, in the West Wing, among Cabinet members and from the President.”
Privately, however, Trump has openly weighed replacing Kelly in recent months. The president consulted friends and advisers about Kelly’s performance and solicited feedback on potential successors — including Mick Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman who heads the Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Nick Ayers, a Republican strategist who serves as chief of staff to Vice President Pence.
Mulvaney had been pitching himself for the job — even to the president — arguing that he had effectively run two important agencies, would not try to manage the president, was loyal to the Trump family and could be trusted not to leak information to journalists, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Ayers has grown increasingly close to Trump — as well as to senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law — and is seen as a rising political force inside the West Wing as the November midterm elections near and the president prepares for his reelection campaign.
There also have been recent discussions inside Trump’s orbit about Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as a possible successor to Kelly. A Trump loyalist who also is close to Ivanka Trump and Kushner, Mnuchin was being encouraged by some allies to consider the post, according to three people familiar with those conversations. Mnuchin’s boosters held up as a model the career of Donald Regan, who was treasury secretary before becoming President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in the 1980s.
But Mnuchin did not seriously entertain the entreaties and is happy in his role, according to people familiar with his thinking. He has confided to friends that he feels proud of his record overseeing economic growth and has been coy about the idea of taking on the role of chief of staff.
Regardless, Trump has decided to stick with Kelly — for now, at least. As with all personnel matters in the Trump White House, circumstances could change, and Kelly may not end up staying in his job through the 2020 election, considering he serves at the pleasure of a president who often acts on impulse and whim.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he left in three weeks,” said a Republican strategist who works closely with the White House and spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he left after the midterms. And it wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed till 2020. Nothing would surprise me at this point.”
Kelly made his announcement near the end of Monday’s senior staff meeting, in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing, just steps from the Oval Office. Both Mulvaney and Ayers were in the room and listened quietly as Kelly spoke, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
“The 10 months of media hand-wringing about General Kelly’s ‘imminent’ departure was presumptuous and predicated on wild rumors and misunderstanding how the White House — and our President — operate,” Conway wrote.
Kelly was appointed in July 2017 to succeed Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, after serving for the first six months of the administration as secretary of homeland security.
Kelly sought to bring rigid order and discipline to the West Wing, but Trump chafed, and Kelly discovered that there were limits to what he could control. Kelly developed a strained relationship with Ivanka Trump and Kushner and was accused of trying to limit the latter’s powers by revoking his interim security clearance before he was granted a permanent clearance in the spring.
Today Kelly is a shadow of himself from a year ago. Once Trump’s gatekeeper who unilaterally controlled who entered the Oval Office and which ideas could be presented to the president, Kelly now is more of an operational chief and has given up somewhat on policing access to the president.
Kelly’s influence on Trump is hardly singular. National security adviser John Bolton reports directly to the president and has unfettered access, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a powerful force on foreign affairs. A trio of communications strategists — Conway, Deputy Chief of Staff Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — help guide the president on political matters.
Kelly’s tenure was marred this year by his handling of domestic abuse allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned in February. His credibility suffered from a string of misstatements, including an attack he leveled in the fall against Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). And he has drawn criticism inside the administration for comments his colleagues consider crude and politically tone deaf.
But Kelly still commands respect from Trump, in part because of his military credentials, and has been a trusted adviser on national security issues in particular. The two are ideologically like-minded, especially on immigration.
Trump acknowledged earlier in the summer that serving as chief of staff has been trying for Kelly.
“He’s a wonderful man — John Kelly, four star, wonderful man,” Trump told reporters June 29. “Don’t forget, this is a big change for him. This has not been an easy change for him.”
Asked how long Kelly might stick around, Trump said, “That I can’t tell you. But I can say we’ve had a very good relationship, and we’ve achieved a lot. . . . I like him, and I respect him.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.