White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is scrambling to do damage control after NBC News reported he called President Trump an “idiot” multiple times and thinks his own role is to save the world from disaster.
NBC News reported Monday that Kelly has portrayed himself to 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.”
The reported added, “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.”
Kelly himself released a statement shortly after the story was published, calling it “BS”:
I spend more time with the President than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS. I am committed to the President, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.
His top aide, Zachary Fuentes, also went on record to push back against the story, saying he has never heard Kelly describe the president that way.
“Remember, he is a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Fuentes told the Associated Press (AP). “The office of the commander in chief is held to the highest regard.”
Trump, although he did not reference the reports, tweeted, “The Fake News is going crazy making up false stories and using only unnamed sources (who don’t exist). They are totally unhinged, and the great success of this Administration is making them do and say things that even they can’t believe they are saying. Truly bad people!”
Both the NBC News and AP stories were based on unnamed sources.
However, speculation is growing that Kelly could be asked to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs after Navy Adm. Ronny Jackson’s nomination fell through amid allegations of misconduct.
“There have been discussions among the senior staff and the president directly about the possibility of Gen. Kelly going there [to the VA],” one person familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal.
The move would allow Kelly a soft landing while moving a qualified official — and a retired general — into the position.
Kelly would have the advantage of being Senate-confirmable since he has already been confirmed for secretary of Homeland Security 88-11.
Questions over Kelly’s future comes amid increasing reports of tension with Trump.
Axios reported last week that Kelly “blew up” at Trump, threatened to quit, and was so worked up that colleagues had to call him and calm him down.
Last month, three sources leaked to Axios and Daily Beast an off-the-record meeting Kelly had with reporters, where he allegedly said Trump was the source of stories of chaos at the White House and revealed that Tillerson was on the toilet when he was fired.
And Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have not been fans of Kelly since the chief of staff downgraded Kushner’s security clearance.
A White House official told Axios in February, “Javanka and Kelly are locked in a death match. Two enter. Only one survives.”
Kelly was also at the center of controversy after former White House staff secretary Rob Porter was ousted amid charges of domestic violence against his ex-wives.
Kelly reportedly had defended Porter and struggled to explain if and when the White House knew of the charges.
He also came under fire in January for suggesting to Fox News during an interview that Trump had “evolved” in his thinking on the need for a wall on the U.S. southwestern border.
Trump reportedly fumed over those remarks, tweeting, “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it. Parts will be, of necessity, see through and it was never intended to be built in areas where there is natural protection such as mountains, wastelands or tough rivers or water.”
The chief of staff defended the president during the controversy when four U.S. soldiers in Niger were killed. But he has also chafed the president with his attempts to enforce discipline — reportedly controlling which news articles make it to the president’s desk and who he talks to.
Kelly reportedly wants to stay on the job for at least a year, until July. His departure would be only one among several high-profile changes this year.
Last month, he replaced former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with loyalists Amb. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.
In his second year, Trump has been turning to loyalists to get his agenda passed and firing those who have sought to moderate him.