John Kelly's Dramatic Start As Trump's Chief Of Staff To assess John Kelly's first day as the president's chief of staff, host Steve Inskeep speaks with Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to then-defense secretary Leon Panetta.
NPR logo

John Kelly's Dramatic Start As Trump's Chief Of Staff

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/540787776/540804135" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
John Kelly's Dramatic Start As Trump's Chief Of Staff

John Kelly's Dramatic Start As Trump's Chief Of Staff

John Kelly's Dramatic Start As Trump's Chief Of Staff

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/540787776/540804135" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

To assess John Kelly's first day as the president's chief of staff, host Steve Inskeep speaks with Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff to then-defense secretary Leon Panetta.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly is one day in - one day. And like many a day at the Trump White House, that day had events enough for many days. For one thing, President Trump fired his communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. Here's Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledging that Scaramucci's profane rant to a reporter last week had something to do with his dismissal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president certainly felt that Anthony's comments were inappropriate for a person in that position, and he didn't want to burden General Kelly.

INSKEEP: So that just leaves General Kelly with all the other burdens of the job, which we're going to discuss with Jeremy Bash. He once was a chief of staff to Leon Panetta as Panetta ran the Pentagon and CIA, and he worked with John Kelly. Welcome to the program.

JEREMY BASH: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how would you rate General Kelly's first day?

BASH: Well, I think he gets high marks for pushing out Anthony Scaramucci. In some ways, Kelly is the anti-Mooch. He is publicity shy. I know John because I worked with him, as you referenced, at the Pentagon. He was the senior military assistant to then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when I was chief of staff.

You know, John can use salty language like the Mooch, but it's not his default mode. He certainly would never call a reporter up and launch a tirade. But more fundamentally, Steve, John is about discipline. He comes from the Marine Corps, and he believes in the chain of command. And I think to him, his main mission here is to bring some order to the chaos and indiscipline in that West Wing.

INSKEEP: He seems to get along with the president. You hear that from people in the White House. You sort of see it when they're on television screen together, but that has elicited some worry that he won't tell tough truths to this president. Do you think he will?

BASH: No, I think John is very capable of standing up and speaking truth to power. You know, I do think that they've developed a good rapport over these last several months. Recall that John did not know President Trump - or President-elect Trump at all when he first got the call to come up and interview with the president-elect back in November. He's developed a relationship with him.

My sense is that the president has called him about a number of things. I know the president talked to him about becoming FBI director. He talked to him about becoming chief of staff previously. He's talked to him about things like tax reform. I know that he brought John into some of the discussions about the strike on the Syria chemical weapons airfield even though John, again, formerly was the DHS secretary...

INSKEEP: Homeland Security wouldn't normally be involved.

BASH: And that wasn't his role. But I think given his experience, his stature and I think his common sense, the president has called upon him time and again.

INSKEEP: So what is John Kelly's job if the president is confronted, as he is, with an increasing problem with North Korea? And the United States has said over and over again we're done talking about this. We want to do something. What's Kelly's job?

BASH: Yeah. Look. I think Kelly's main job is to tee up facts and information for the president so the president can make a sound decision. And I think also, you know, the job of the chief of staff is to manage up and to manage down. And manage down meaning get the staff in order so that they are bringing to the president in an orderly fashion information the president needs to decide big issues, like whether we're going to take military action but also to manage up and make sure that the president, you know, doesn't kind of go off the reservation. I think that's going to be the hardest part of the job.

INSKEEP: Getting the right information. What is the chief of staff supposed to do with the president who gets his information from Fox News, Breitbart, InfoWars? I mean, some of those sources can be credible sometimes, but very often it's fake news.

BASH: And in some ways, John's biggest hurdle is to make sure that the president sees that the information he gets from his own intelligence community, from his own government, his own departments and agencies is more compelling, actually more relevant to his job and more informative to the president than anything he might learn from social media or Fox News.

INSKEEP: Meaning Kelly has to make sure that the reliable information fights for its place in the president's mind.

BASH: I think that's absolutely right.

INSKEEP: One other thing very quickly. Is it part of a chief of staff's job sometimes to ignore an angry president making demands? Richard Nixon's chief of staff seemed to do that from time to time. Should Kelly have that as part of his job?

BASH: Yeah. Sometimes you've got to close the door and say, Boss, I'm going to let you cool down a little bit. And then come back, let's talk about this in a half an hour or maybe tomorrow.

INSKEEP: And he can do that?

BASH: He absolutely can. And I don't think he's afraid to stand up to the president. John has independent stature. And look. This is very hard. We won't know for many weeks and months whether he really has the tiger by the tail, if you will, or whether he can really bring order to that chaotic place.

INSKEEP: Jeremy Bash, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

BASH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He served as chief of staff to Leon Panetta, is now founder and managing director of Beacon Global Strategies.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.