John Kelly’s White House Tenure Was The Greatest Challenge Of His Career

NPR Southwest correspondent John Burnett interviewed Kelly in July. He says the retired Marine Corps general was particularly frustrated by media scrutiny and President Donald Trump’s treatment of his colleagues.

By Laura RiceDecember 10, 2018 11:47 am

There was a shake-up at the White House over the weekend: President Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly – the person Trump brought in last year to bring order to a West Wing in disarray – leaves on terms that can at best be described as strained.

The president announced Kelly’s departure as he was was departing Washington, D.C. for the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. Rumors about Kelly’s departure circulated last week, but Austin-based NPR correspondent John Burnett who, earlier this year, scored a one-on-one interview with Kelly, says his departure wasn’t a surprise.

“There have been consistent rumors that he and Trump were not getting along, that relations were strained,” Burnett says.

During Burnett’s interview with the general, Kelly said: “There’s times of great frustration mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of, which is just about everyone that works at the complex, and wonder if it’s worth it to be subjected to that, but then I grow up and suck it up.”

Kelly told Burnett that working in the White House has been the challenge of his life, even more challenging than his 56-year military career. Burnett says much of the challenge was the result of the intense media scrutiny that comes with the job. But he says Kelly also became increasingly frustrated with Trump because of how Trump has treated Kelly’s protégé, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

“She was with [Kelly] when he was secretary of homeland security,” Burnett says. “Trump has beat up on her mercilessly. He has humiliated her in front of the cabinet, he’s blamed her for not stopping the immigrants from coming across the southern border, and we understand Kelly has been angered at the president [for] picking on her, along with lots of other issues.”

Burnett says despite his frustrations with Trump, Kelly managed to accomplish some of his own goals, including convincing Trump to keep the U.S. in NATO and to keep American troops in South Korea.

Trump brought Kelly into the White House to “instill discipline and order in a chaotic White House,” Burnett says. But he says based on the evidence, Kelly hasn’t achieved that goal. He was also brought in to be an “adult in the room,” Burnett says – in other words, someone who could keep the president from making serious mistakes.

“To keep the president from getting us into World War III – so, perhaps on that count, he’s been successful,” Burnett says.

Kelly also had free reign to control who visited the Oval Office, and Burnett says he did bring order to that process, as well.

Trump’s first pick for Kelly’s replacement, Vice President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, has refused the job.

Written by Caroline Covington.