When John Kelly accepted the position of White House chief of staff last July, he framed his main function as imposing order, including instituting a formal process for the documents and news articles that reached the Resolute Desk.
But President Donald Trump’s increasingly incendiary Twitter feed, which remains outside Kelly’s control, has short-circuited that attempt at creating a functional system for controlling the flow of information into the Oval Office.
Twitter has allowed the president to continue accessing fringe websites and viewing racist videos simply by scanning his “mentions,” according to two former aides who have observed how he uses the site. Trump doesn’t use the direct-message function on the website, which would allow people he follows to privately share links with him — but he often looks at tweets that mention his handle, and picks up links and videos there.
The conversation on Twitter then often dictates his thinking. “Everybody’s talking about this,” he will tell his top aides in the West Wing, referring to a clip or an article he saw circulating among the small group of Twitter users he follows.
On Wednesday morning, the failure of Kelly’s attempt at information control was on the fullest display since he accepted the job. Trump retweeted three inflammatory videos that claimed to portray Muslims performing violent acts. None of the videos were independently verified, but they claimed to depict Muslims destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary, pushing a teen off a roof and beating him to death, as well as one video with the headline, “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” The clips were retweeted from the feed of Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of a British ultranationalist party.
People close to Trump said that while his longtime aide and social media director Dan Scavino and his eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., in the past have been responsible for sharing with the president more inflammatory content and articles from alt-right websites, Wednesday’s tweets were posted before 7 a.m. — earlier in the morning that Scavino typically interacts with the president. It appeared the videos came across the president’s feed via conservative activist Ann Coulter, one of the 45 individuals whom Trump follows on Twitter, who had retweeted one of the videos herself the day before.
Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets were followed by an unsubstantiated allegation against “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough, accusing him of being involved in an “unsolved mystery” in Florida that Trump said needed more investigating. The post was widely seen as a reference to the 2001 death of a former Scarborough aide, from the days when the morning television personality still served in Congress.
Together, the president’s active morning on Twitter raised new questions about Kelly’s influence — specifically, what impact can the retired four-star Marine general exert when the president is determined to set his own agenda, based on his own sources of information, on a platform his chief refuses to monitor or even acknowledge is driving the news, the legislative process and the country’s standing around the globe, every day.
“Believe it or not, I do not follow the tweets,” Kelly told reporters while traveling in Asia earlier this month with the president. But when Trump is consumed by information he ferrets out online, the question is how long Kelly can perform his job while maintaining that position.
Kelly, a man driven by military self-discipline — he typically works from a standing desk in his large office down the hall from the Oval — has told people he never heard of former chief strategist Steve Bannon’s website Breitbart News before entering the administration, and says he also wasn’t a huge consumer of television news. But his own media diet and personal habits have had little effect on Trump.
That doesn’t surprise people who have been in the president’s orbit for years. “The notion that some new regime was going to be able to come into the White House and control the information flow to the president always seemed ludicrous to me,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide. “He will look at Breitbart, he will look at InfoWars, he will look at Drudge. He’s not going to forget about those. And eventually, he’s just not going to like that he’s being handled.”
On one level, former staffers acknowledge that ignoring the Twitter feed, however impossible that may be, might just save Kelly a losing battle. Since the campaign, aides have tried — and failed — to control the president’s use of Twitter. Trump is familiar with the criticisms — he knows that his retweets and his commentary are “not presidential,” he will tell aides, pre-empting the criticism he knows is coming. “The most success anyone has had, through numerous angles and schemes, has been to stop it momentarily, or to slow things down,” said one former aide of Trump’s tweets. “But it’s just not possible to control it.”
During the campaign, aides learned that deleting a tweet from Trump’s Twitter feed only drew more attention to it, and telling him “no” was impossible. Instead, they would simply try and bury the more damaging 140-character missives under a cascade of more benign Twitter content.
Trump’s typical response to people who tell him to tone down the tweets, multiple people said, is to remind them that he won the election in large part because of his use of social media — and everyone thought it was crazy back then. Former aides like Bannon have also convinced him that with his 43.6 million followers, the Twitter stream is a real way to circumvent mainstream media organizations. That is part of what has left the White House in chaos, despite Kelly’s attempts to impose military order.
“It obviously makes it very difficult for any chief of staff to be able to impose a chain of command and discipline in the White House when the president himself is not willing to abide by any discipline when it comes to tweets,” said Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.
But Panetta, who served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, defended Kelly, who was his military assistant at the Pentagon. “The title is chief of staff, not president,” he said. “I don’t know of any chief of staff who has said that he can command what the president does or does not do. The question is how long can a chief of staff tolerate it. That is something he will have to decide for himself.”
Some White House officials still claim that there is a “night and day” difference under Kelly from how the West Wing functioned under former chief of staff Reince Priebus. There is a higher level of respect for the chief of staff’s office, multiple officials said. Indeed, criticism of Trump’s behavior, or of missteps on the part of the White House, that used to land on Priebus rarely falls on Kelly’s shoulders. But from the outside, it’s hard to measure any real change in the president’s behavior between the Priebus and the Kelly regimes.
“It’s still a wild ride with this guy,” Panetta acknowledged. “If the captain is basically steering his own course, there comes a point at which you have to ask yourself: Are you effectively serving the interests of the country?”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.
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