During a press briefing earlier this month, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly alluded to a pair of viral images of him. In one short clip, he rubs his eyes as President Trump defends a soft white supremacy following violence in Charlottesville. In another, he hides his face in his hand as Trump derides Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” at the United Nations.
Those moments weren’t what they seemed, he said: “You guys with the cameras always catch me when I'm thinking hard and it looks like I'm frustrated and mad.”
Several subsequent comments, most recently a baffling, historically illiterate defense of Robert E. Lee delivered on Fox News on Monday night, have made Kelly’s denial more credible. In addition to having shown the imprudence of overinterpreting brief visual evidence, the last few weeks have demonstrated that, while Kelly is frequently at odds with Trump’s stylistic approach, the men are largely simpatico on substance.
When Kelly, then secretary of homeland security, was moved to the chief of staff’s job at the time of the Reince Priebus–Anthony Scaramucci bloodbath, in late July, the word was that he would either instill order in the White House or go down trying. Although the West Wing began to leak somewhat less profusely, a string of reports soon sketched out how things were going. Kelly was able to restrict the revolving door of hangers-on cycling through the Oval Office, and to apparently narrow the flow of unvetted information reaching the president. (He couldn’t restrict Trump’s late-night and early-morning cable-TV habit, though.)