Chief of staff John Kelly's position in the White House looks weaker as President Trump asserts himself and chaos reigns

  • Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, was supposed to be the one who brought order to Trump's chaotic and leak-ridden White House.
  • Kelly has overseen and commanded thousands of troops and staffers over the years, but working directly for Trump turned out to be a wildly different experience.
  • Here are some recent developments which suggest that Kelly's power has diminished eight months into his tenure as chief of staff.
John Kelly listens to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
John Kelly listens to U.S. President Donald Trump.

The president is always in charge at the White House, but the chief of staff is usually known as the one who keeps everything in order.

That has changed in President Donald Trump's administration, first with Reince Priebus, whom Trump fired last summer, and now with John Kelly.

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and the former head of the Homeland Security Department, was supposed to be the one who brought order to Trump's chaotic and leak-ridden White House. Kelly has overseen and commanded thousands of troops and staffers over the years, but working directly for Trump turned out to be a wildly different experience.

There were reports of tension with Trump from the beginning – and countless stories that suggested either Kelly would soon quit or Trump would fire him. Recent reports say that Kelly is sticking with the job, even as Trump increasingly asserts himself with greater force.

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment on reports of Kelly's diminished role.

Here are some recent developments which suggest that Kelly's power has diminished eight months into his tenure as chief of staff.

Trump and Kelly reach a 'truce'

Chaos at the White House reached a fever pitch two weeks ago. Trump had just named longtime CNBC contributor Larry Kudlow as his top economic advisor after Gary Cohn quit following a dispute over the president's trade policy. Trump also fired his beleaguered secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, over Twitter, and his personal assistant, John McEntee, was booted from the White House reportedly over alleged gambling habits.

There were rumors of even more staff turnover. The Washington Post reported that Trump had decided to fire National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, while the White House pushed back on the report.

Yet the morning of Friday, March 16, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump and Kelly had reached "a truce," and everything calmed down for the moment. "Kelly is not going anywhere," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the Journal. But the Journal cited officials who cautioned that the president would continue to make changes as he sees fit, an indication that Trump also asserted himself while reaching detente with Kelly.

Kelly on the margins

Since the truce, there have been more indications that Kelly's power has declined in the West Wing. Thursday, Bloomberg News, citing senior aides, reported that Kelly wasn't with Trump during recent big policy and staff decisions.

For instance, the chief of staff was not with Trump when the president decided to fire McMaster, according to Bloomberg. Nor was Kelly on the line when Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin for his recent election victory, the report said.

Kelly was more involved in the firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Bloomberg said. And various other reports say Kelly was the one to let Shulkin know that he was on the outs. Kelly has also moved to tighten up the White House's security clearance policies, resulting in Trump son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner getting a clearance downgrade. Trump even let Kelly decide whether to weaken Kushner's clearance.

But Kelly's piecemeal involvement in the executive decision-making process indicates that Trump sees himself as the ultimate chief of staff.

Does Trump even need Kelly?

Indeed, CNN reported Thursday that several outside advisors were telling Trump that he doesn't need a chief of staff, citing a source familiar with the conversations between the president and his confidants.

Trump entered office with hopes of running government the way he had run his businesses, both behind closed doors and on television with his reality show "The Apprentice." It was clear from the beginning that he was not entirely comfortable with the bureaucracy and traditional means of operation in Washington. Now, just over a year into his presidency, evidence points to Trump acting more in his preferred style.

According to CNN's report, advisors are telling Trump that, without a chief of staff, he can have more control over policy initiatives and staffing issues.

For instance, Kelly has been criticized for the way the White House handled the dismissal of Rob Porter, a senior Trump aide whose two ex-wives accused him of abuse, and the chaotic aftermath. Trump himself places much of the blame on Kelly, according to The New York Times, and the president has discussed trying to bring Porter back to the White House.

For the moment, it looks like Kelly is hanging in there, even with all the turnover, intrigue, speculation and strife. But it's also increasingly apparent that Trump is listening to Kelly's critics – and himself – at least as much as he is listening to Kelly himself.