Under former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, there was no formal policymaking process in the West Wing: no set protocol for meeting with the president, giving him information, or presenting various options with which to make decisions. Sometimes, multiple staffers said, disagreements broke out in the Oval Office in front of the president.
That disorganization ultimately led to a string of policy failures, including the collapse of health care reform, even though Republicans control both the White House and Congress.
Now, as President Donald Trump looks to embark on an ambitious fall policy drive that includes tax reform, an infrastructure package and maybe health care—again—his new chief of staff John Kelly is moving quickly to fix those earlier problems in hopes of preventing repeat defeats, according to interviews with five White House officials.
“He’s encouraging people to not step on each other, and that’s not limited to policy,” said one senior administration official.
Since arriving two weeks ago, Kelly has instructed White House aides to stay in their lanes and tackle policies only within their portfolios. He’s insisted that the president hear from all different sides of an issue on everything from trade to taxes instead of allowing the last person who happened to waltz into the Oval Office to have the final word.
And he has made it clear, particularly in a staff-wide meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building last week, that aides’ allegiance must be to the institution and the president, not their own agendas.
“He’s strong on process and short on games,” said one White House official. That’s a sea change for a six-month-old administration riddled with infighting among the its various tribal factions.
What Kelly isn’t doing so far is taking too strong a hand to stop Trump from being himself. So far this week, Trump’s escalated a war of words with North Korea on Twitter, insulted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and thanked Russian president Vladimir Putin for kicking American diplomats out of Moscow.
This is what worries both White House staffers and Republicans outside of the administration – that no one, not even a retired Marine Corps general, can rein in this president and his tendency to make policy on the fly regardless of whatever process that Kelly puts in place.
“Gen. Kelly is capable of making significant operational changes in the White House, but controlling the president’s impulses is another matter,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who supported Jeb Bush during the 2016 campaign. “If you can’t control that, it’s hard to have a coherent strategy.”
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Even White House officials, who expressed optimism about Kelly’s new structures, can’t say for sure his changes will hold.
“So far, it’s making the president’s life easier, but when you are leaving to go on vacation, it’s easy to make one’s life easier,” said a close adviser to the White House, shortly before the president left for Bedminster.
Part of Kelly’s newly imposed discipline comes from him staying in the loop on the president’s communications with Cabinet secretaries and agencies – levers of power the administration needs to lean on if it wants to govern and truly reshape the federal government.
“I think already you’re starting to see a different flow, a different discipline,” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said late last week. “Several times I’ve been on phone conversations with the President over the last couple of days and General Kelly has been on those conversations as well. I like him – I think everybody likes him – and I think ultimately we get better work done.”
Republicans who’ve worked with Kelly in the past, and associates know him well, say that getting work done will be far more important to him than advancing a particular ideology. They say Kelly is generally “averse to politics,” without a deep grounding in domestic policy like tax reform or health care, but they say that does not have to be a liability in West Wing with other legislative and political experts.
“The way Kelly’s authority is sustainable is if the White House sees results,” said one source close to him. “If they can put points on the board, then they’ll adhere to the rules and processes he’s set up.”
He’s also open to reaching across the aisle to Democrats. During the Trump transition, for instance, he quietly met with Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama and his predecessor at the agency, over the protestations of some transition officials who wanted nothing to do with Obama appointees, according to one source close to Kelly.
In meetings, Kelly tends to be efficient and stern, unafraid to cut off people or insert a question to get to the answer more quickly, said Blain Rethmeier, who helped shepherd Kelly through his confirmation process at DHS and worked in the White House under President George W. Bush.
“He expects just as much out of himself as he expects from the people in front of him,” Rethmeier said. “He does a good job of pulling people back up, or out of the weeds but does it in a way that is not intimidating.”
Even Priebus supporters say that Kelly has advantages his predecessor didn’t.
“[Reince] had no opportunity to succeed, and it was impossible for him to impose discipline and order,” said one White House official. “He was brought in a representative of the Republican Party. A general commands a different level of respect.”