On more than one occasion, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has been spotted with his head down, arms crossed and his face locked in a steely expression that many an observer has interpreted as physical evidence of his exasperation at serving under President Trump.
Rumors that the former Marine general is not long for a job he took only a few short months ago persist.
But on Thursday afternoon, Kelly was all smiles as he sauntered into the White House Brady Press Briefing room, his first appearance there since becoming chief of staff, telling a room full of surprised reporters that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I would just offer to you that although I read it all the time pretty consistently, I’m not quitting today,” the former Marine general said prompting chuckles across the room. “I don’t believe — and I just talked to the president — I don’t think I’m being fired today.”
“And I am not so frustrated in this job that I’m thinking of leaving,” Kelly said. “I would tell you, this is the hardest job I’ve ever had. This is, in my view, the most important job I ever had.”
Kelly was brought into the White House in July to instill a sense of order to what had been a chaotic operation and to try to ratchet back the drama that had come to define the West Wing. On Thursday, his job was to quell the drama that now surrounds his own future in Trump’s constantly churning inner circle.
Recent news reports have described tensions between a restless and dissatisfied president and his discipline-minded chief of staff. They have so provoked Trump’s anger that he has lashed out repeatedly at the “fake news” media on Twitter.
Kelly sought to join Trump in refuting those reports — not by channeling his boss’s anger but through self-deprecating jokes and calm assurances that all is fine.
“Is this the iron hand that I brought to the staff?” Kelly asked incredulously while raising his arm, when faced with a question about his attempts to instill greater discipline and structure in the West Wing. “No. Just put some organization to it. With a smile on my face.”
He was peppered with questions about the president’s temperament and unpredictable Twitter habits.
Are you frustrated?
“No, I’m not frustrated.”
Do his tweets make your job more difficult?
Are you concerned that he’s jeopardizing his agenda by feuding with members of his own party?
Two dozen hands shot up as Kelly scanned the room to find a new questioner.
“Are the people in the front row like the most important people? Or . . .,” he asked, turning to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who chuckled before shaking her head in a dramatic “no.”
Inside the White House, Kelly’s appearance was viewed as a “tour-de-force” aimed at “destroying” a rumor mill that had angered and frustrated the president and his aides.
“Ignoring insults and uninformed opinions is part of the job; yet when the rumor mill reaches a fever pitch, and thinly sourced or invented statements or states of mind are falsely attributed to one of us, it is best to respond,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Kelly isn’t the first White House official to take it upon themselves to plaster a broad smile on reports of underlying tensions.
On the first day of his brief but tumultuous tenure as White House communications director — which was proceeded by the resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer — Anthony Scaramucci held forth at that same podium and declared that rumors of his feud with Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus were greatly exaggerated.
“We are a little bit like brothers, where we rough each other up every once in a while,” Scarramucci said at the time.
A week later, he would call Priebus a “paranoid schizophrenic” in a profanity-laced phone call with a New Yorker reporter.
What Scaramucci possessed in bravado, Kelly displayed in a military-grade calm and a straightforward approach.
“It was classic General Kelly,” said Blain Rethmeier, who assisted Kelly with the Senate confirmation process as the nominee to be Homeland Security secretary. “He gives it to you straight and honest.”
Kelly’s appearance at the press briefing came on a day in which the president had once again created his own controversy, tweeting that morning that federal aid workers and military personnel could not stay in Puerto Rico “forever” after a storm devastated the U.S. territory.
The tweets seemed to imply frustration on Trump’s part that Puerto Rico’s slow recovery would occupy federal resources for months and even years to come.
Like nearly all the officials before him, Kelly was forced to explain the president’s words and he chose to do it literally, not figuratively.
“The tweet about FEMA and DOD — read, military — is exactly accurate: They’re not going to be there forever,” Kelly said. “And the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job, and then transition to the rebuilding process.”
Kelly’s efforts to translate the president’s words extended to Trump’s crusade against “fake news.”
A day after Trump advocated revoking the “licenses” of news organizations whose reports he disagreed with — though no such licenses exist — Kelly offered a softer recommendation for the press.
“I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are operating off of contacts, leaks, whatever you call them,” Kelly said. “But I would just offer to you the advice: I’d say, you know, maybe develop some better sources. Some person that works way down inside an office or — well, just develop some better sources.”
But when given the opportunity, Kelly took a rare step to defend himself and counter the assumption that he had failed as chief of staff in reining in the president.
“I was not sent in to or brought in to control him, and you should not measure my effectiveness as a chief of staff by what you think I should be doing,” Kelly said. “The fact is, I can guarantee to you that he is now presented with options — well thought-out options. Those options are discussed in detail with his team. And then he comes up with — with the right decision.”
Later in the day, after a ceremony in which one of Kelly’s top aides, Kirstjen Nielsen, was nominated to fill his old post as Homeland Security secretary, Kelly seemed to be in a jovial mood.
Asked by reporters if he enjoyed his turn in the proverbial hot seat, the chief of staff replied with a smile: “Yeah.’