Kelly calls Trump 'idiot,' say White House staffers

WASHINGTON — White House chief of staff John Kelly has eroded morale in the West Wing in recent months with comments to aides that include insulting the president's intelligence and casting himself as the savior of the country, according to eight current and former White House officials.

The officials said Kelly portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe, curbing the erratic urges of a president who has a questionable grasp on policy issues and the functions of government. He has referred to Trump as "an idiot" multiple times to underscore his point, according to four officials who say they've witnessed the comments.

Three White House spokespeople said they don't believe it's accurate that Kelly called the president an "idiot," adding that none of them has ever heard him do that or otherwise use that word.

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John Kelly in his White House role
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John Kelly in his White House role
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks on his phone in a hallway outside the room where U.S. President Donald Trump was meeting with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly delivers speech at the Secretary of Interior Building in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) before a briefing on hurricane relief efforts in a hangar at Muniz Air National Guard Base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, U.S. October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks about immigration reform at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner look on as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks before meeting with Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his delegation at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks about border security during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly delivers a statement accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, Mexico February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) and First Lady Melania Trump (lower right) listen as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) shows the time to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (L) as they attend a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (C) stands in an adjacent cabin as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the press cabin aboard Air Force One on his way to Washington after viewing damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida, U.S. September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes remarks to reporters before meeting with a bipartisan group of members of Congress at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway (R) attend Kuwait's Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and U.S. President Donald Trump's news conference after their meetings at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly stands before a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) arrives with fellow staff to board Air Force One with U.S. President Trump for travel to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly looks down at his phone as he boards Air Force One in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S., hours after it was announced that Trump Senior Adviser Steve Bannon left the administration August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly looks on as he listens to Mexico's Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong (not pictured) delivering a joint message at the Secretary of Interior Building in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives to Secretary of Interior Building before addressing the media, in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly takes questions from the media while addressing the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leans on the Resolute Desk during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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Officials said Kelly's public image as a retired four-star general instilling discipline on a chaotic White House and an impulsive president belies what they describe as the undisciplined and indiscreet approach he's employed as chief of staff. The private manner aides describe may shed new light on why Kelly now finds himself — just nine months into the job — grappling with diminished influence and a drumbeat of questions about how long he'll remain at the White House.

"He says stuff you can't believe," said one senior White House official. "He'll say it and you think, 'That is not what you should be saying.'"

Trump, who aides said has soured on his second chief of staff, is aware of some though not all of Kelly's comments, according to the current and former officials.

The White House spokespeople said they haven't heard Kelly talk about himself as the one saving the country, and that if anything he may have spoken in jest along those lines.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said Kelly's comments about Trump, when compared to previous White House chiefs of staff, "suggest a lack of respect for the sitting president of a kind that we haven't seen before." Beschloss said the closest similarity would be President Ronald Reagan's chief of staff during his second term, Don Regan, who "somewhat looked down on" his boss and eventually lost the support of the staff and the president. Regan was replaced after two years by Howard Baker.

The last time it became public that one of Trump's top advisers insulted his intelligence behind his back, it didn't go over well with the president. White House aides have said Trump never got over former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling him a "moron" in front of colleagues, which was first reported by NBC News. Trump later challenged Tillerson to an IQ test and fired him several months after the remark became public.

Current and former White House officials said Kelly has at times made remarks that have rattled female staffers. Kelly has told aides multiple times that women are more emotional than men, including at least once in front of the president, four current and former officials said.

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John Kelly and Rob Porter
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John Kelly and Rob Porter
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) leads White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter off of Air Force One as they arrive with U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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And during a firestorm in February over accusations of domestic abuse against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, Kelly wondered aloud how much more Porter would have to endure before his honor could be restored, according to three officials who were present for the comments. He also questioned why Porter's ex-wives wouldn't just move on based on the information he said he had about his marriages, the officials said.

Some current and former White House officials said they expect Kelly to leave by July, his one-year mark. But others say it's anyone's guess. What's clear is both Trump and Kelly seem to have tired of each other.

"Kelly appears to be less engaged, which may be to the president's detriment," a second senior White House official said.

Kelly has maintained at least two close allies in the West Wing — Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, and White House counsel Don McGahn, current and former officials said.

The White House spokespeople conceded that Trump gets frustrated at times with Kelly, particularly when he feels Kelly is not giving him all the information he needs and wants. They said Kelly and Trump have an open, candid relationship.

The spokespeople disputed that staff has lost confidence in Kelly, saying he's still chief of staff so when he issues an order aides comply and that "for the most part the staff still respects and genuinely likes Kelly."

The White House spokespeople said they haven't seen Kelly have a negative effect on the morale of women staffers. If anything, they said during meetings Kelly is the "bigger gentleman" who steps in when aides use foul language to note "a lady is present" and similarly says he shouldn't use foul language in front of a lady if he's used an expletive. The spokespeople, who would not speak for the record, said it's possible Kelly may have said women are more emotional than men, with one of them agreeing that "generally speaking, women are more emotional than men."

"We've got to save him from himself"

Kelly entered the White House with a mandate to instill order in a West Wing where aides regularly had unfettered access to the president. He adopted some key changes, such as shrinking the number of people in meetings and limiting access to the Oval Office.

He has also pushed back against the president on some foreign policy and military issues, current and former White House officials said.

In one heated exchange between the two men before February's Winter Olympics in South Korea, Kelly strongly — and successfully — dissuaded Trump from ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, according to two officials.

For Kelly, the exchange underscored the reasoning behind one of his common refrains, which multiple officials described as some version of "I'm the one saving the country."

"The strong implication being 'if I weren't here we would've entered WWIII or the president would have been impeached,'" one former senior White House official said.

Kelly has made similar comments to lawmakers, at times making fun of what he sees as Trump's lack of knowledge about policy and government, current and former officials said.

He's been particularly cutting when it comes to immigration issues, which he considers one of his policy strong suits, having served as Homeland Security secretary and head of the combatant command for U.S. military operations in Central America and South America, the officials said.

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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration
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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks reportedly announced her resignation after testifying about her job and being required to tell "white lies."

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned from his position on July 5, 2018 after a number of ethics scandals.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary in February 2018 amid abuse allegations made by his ex-wives.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Trump in March 2018.

(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as national security advisor in March 2018.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

White House aide Kelly Sadler left her position in June 2018 after reportedly mocking Sen. John McCain.

(REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn announced his resignation in March 2018 after becoming a key architect of the 2017 tax overhaul 

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Sally Yates was fired from her post as acting attorney general when she refused to enforce President Trump's travel ban. 

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russian officials. 

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

President Trump announced David Shulkin was out as secretary of veterans affairs by sending a tweet announcing he had nominated his personal physican, Ronny Jackson, to replace him on March 28, 2018.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in early May.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned in July.

(June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus resigned in July.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Former advisor to President Donald Trump Steve Bannon resigned in August.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director was fired in July after just 10 days on the job. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump fired Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh amid White House leaks in April.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files)

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned in late September. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House aide Omarosa Manigault insists she resigned and was not fired from her role in December 2017.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump fired U.S. Attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara in March.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Mike Dubke resigned as White House communications director in late May.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Walter Shaub, former Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics in Washington, DC resigned in July.

(Photo Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka resigned in August 2017. 

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Rick Dearborn, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs, left the White House in December 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

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Kelly held a series of meetings in his office with White House officials during negotiations with lawmakers on funding for the president's border wall and a resolution on a program — known as DACA — that allows some people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country, according to four officials who either attended or were briefed on the meetings.

He often used the settings to express concern that Trump would agree to a deal that's not hardline enough on immigration and criticized the president's knowledge of the issues to underscore his point, the officials said.

"He doesn't even understand what DACA is. He's an idiot," Kelly said in one meeting, according to two officials who were present. "We've got to save him from himself."

After the talks on a bipartisan deal fell apart, a collapse Kelly helped orchestrate with some conservative Republicans, he told aides in his office: "If it weren't for me the president was going to agree to some hasty deal," according to two officials who were present at the time.

"He doesn't even understand what DACA is. He's an idiot."

Three White House press spokespeople said Kelly did express concern in meetings that Trump would agree to a deal that was too soft on immigration, and after bipartisan talks collapsed told staff that if it weren't for him the president would have cut a bad deal. The spokespeople also said Kelly may have said something along the lines of, "The president doesn't know the full impact of DACA." But they said they don't believe he called him an "idiot."

The spokespeople disputed that Kelly is less engaged in his job. They said he still sees the president and is in the Oval Office more than anyone else. They said Kelly put a much-needed system in place in the West Wing and has over time felt the need to hover less over the president. They said Kelly is still the first person in the White House at 6 a.m. "The president talks to a lot of people but no one talks to him more than the chief of staff," one of them said.

The spokespeople said they have not heard Trump talk seriously about withdrawing all troops from the Korean peninsula.

One person who has known and worked with Kelly over the years said he uses "coarse language" when he is in what he believes to be trusted company.

The public has seen some glimpses of the Kelly that White House officials describe privately. In October, he made comments about a Florida congresswoman that were not accurate. He also remarked that when he was growing up "women were sacred," suggesting he holds some antiquated views of women's roles. And Kelly angered the president in January when he suggested on Fox News that Trump wasn't fully informed on immigration issues.

Trump "felt misled"

Multiple White House staff pointed to the controversy over the allegations against Porter as an instance where the frustrations aides have had with Kelly intersected to make a bad problem worse. They said aides were particularly taken aback by his attempt to inaccurately portray his role in Porter's ouster.

While Kelly initially defended Porter publicly, he was even more emphatic in private, four current and former officials said. Kelly, who had access to Porter's FBI file, suggested to aides that he had information that told a different story than news reports and urged Porter for some 18 hours not to resign, the officials said.

Once Porter resigned, Kelly stunned aides when he urged senior White House officials in a staff meeting to advance the false narrative that he had ousted Porter less than an hour after learning the details of the allegations, the officials said.

One official said that aides who have details that others may not say Kelly is correct that he moved within less than an hour to fire Porter.

Kelly has similarly been less than forthcoming at times with the president, officials said. The two men clashed early on over who would replace Kelly as Homeland Security secretary, three current and former officials said. Trump had wanted to consider Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and tasked Kelly with bringing him a short list of candidates, the officials said.

After some informal interviews with potential nominees, Kelly gave Trump two choices, according to the officials: Kobach and Kelly's deputy Kirstjen Nielsen.

Trump later became convinced Kelly had manipulated the process so he'd pick Nielsen, given the doubts that Kobach could get confirmed, the officials said. "He felt misled," said a senior White House official who was there at the time.

Trump was suspicious that Kelly would similarly try to ensure someone he favored would replace former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, three current and former officials said. Trump had for months complained that McMaster's briefing style was irritating and would do impressions of the three-star general bellowing out a list of points in staccato, his body puffing up and down as he spoke, the officials said. Sometimes Trump would see McMaster on his schedule and ask aides to have him write up a memo instead, the officials said, so he didn't have to meet with him. The president ultimately settled on a successor for McMaster whom officials said was not a Kelly pick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

Most recently, Trump fumed over reports on a passage in former FBI Director James Comey's book about Kelly calling Comey, after the president unceremoniously fired him, to say he didn't want to work for "dishonorable" people, according to five officials.

When reports of the phone call first surfaced last summer, Kelly denied disparaging the president, three officials said.

The White House spokespeople said the list of candidates the Office of Presidential Personnel had to succeed Kelly was longer than Kobach and Nielsen, but that doesn't mean it didn't come down to those two once it went to the president. They said after Trump chose Nielsen he saw criticism of her from conservatives and confronted Kelly about it.

They did not dispute that Trump imitated McMaster and pushed him off his schedule at times in favor of a memo. They confirmed that Bolton was not Kelly's preferred choice.

The spokespeople said Kelly denies saying anything negative about the president to Comey and that it was merely a call to wish him luck.

 

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