In what may have been moment of candor about a difficult job, Donald Trump’s chief of staff joked that his move to the White House was an act of divine punishment.
Before becoming one of Mr Trump’s top aides, an assignment intended to instil order in a tumultuous West Wing, John Kelly ran the Department of Homeland Security. At an event marking his former agency’s anniversary, Mr Kelly drew laughter as he described mixed feelings about the job change.
“The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honours of my life, being the secretary of homeland security”, Mr Kelly said, “but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess”.
As chief of staff, Mr Kelly has been tasked with overseeing a White House roiled by high turnover and with serving a President who regularly generates controversy with his choices of words and attacks his own administration. He shook up Mr Trump’s staff upon his arrival, overseeing the departure of a number of aides, but has also waded into conflicts.
In January, after Mr Kelly reportedly suggested that the President was “uninformed” in calling for a border wall with Mexico during the campaign and publicly said the President had “changed the way he’s looked at a number of things”, Mr Trump responded by saying on Twitter that the wall has “never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it”. The President later expressed his support for Mr Kelly.
Mr Kelly has also been at the centre of a number of controversies that consumed the administration for days.
After White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned amid abuse allegations from ex-wives – which Mr Porter denied – Mr Kelly faced questions about whether he failed to act and about the White Houses’s vetting process. He has since issued a memorandum to update the White House’s security clearance process, and dozens of staffers have been seen their clearances downgraded – including Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and a top aide.
Last year, Mr Kelly became a central player in a dispute with a war widow. Rep Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, said Mr Trump had told the widow her late husband “knew what he signed up for”. Mr Kelly forcefully pushed back on that account and falsely claimed Ms Wilson had sought to take credit for a new FBI building, prompting some Congress members to call for an apology.