Special: Recapping Gen. John Kelly’s first few months as chief of staff

Oct. 13, 2017 AT 9:44 p.m. EDT

Chief of Staff John Kelly addressed his new role at a rare press conference this week. The panelists recapped the event, along with Kelly’s first two months on the job and Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ recent big announcement.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra .

We’re going to dive a little deeper on three D.C. insiders making news this week. It’s just been about two months since General John Kelly took command of the West Wing. There have since been many stories on the level of discipline the new chief of staff has instilled in a White House governed at times by chaos and the president’s Twitter account. General Kelly addressed his role head-on this week in a rare news conference.

GENERAL JOHN KELLY: (From video.) As far as the tweets go, you know, it’s funny. I read in the paper you – well, you all know, you write it – that, you know, I was – I’ve been a failure at controlling the president or a failure at controlling his tweeting and all that. Again, I was not sent in – I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions.

MR. COSTA: Julie, you cover the White House closely. A rare moment to see General Kelly out there at the lectern. What does it tell us about what’s going on inside of the West Wing?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, listen, it was a clever move. It was – it let a little of the air out of the balloon of speculation about, you know, is John Kelly going to be the next to go, is Trump really irate with him, what’s happening. You know, this has been a pretty tumultuous period for the president, and according to some of our reporting for the chief of staff and the senior staff at the White House as well. So I think in some respect he kind of – he defused a lot of that. And he was charming. He was sort of disarming and made fun of himself a little bit about, you know, some of the pictures that have been taken of him going like this and looking really stressed out. But he was doing a little bit in the clip you played there. What was interesting about the appearance for me was I think he was doing a lot of sort of expectation adjusting, like don’t expect for me to bring complete order to this thing because it’s just not happening, so that people will stop expecting that they’re not – they’re going to see the errant – not going to see the errant tweet; that, you know, Trump is somehow going to behave differently than he’s going to behave. He is who he is, and I think John Kelly was hoping that, you know, by coming out and saying this and being willing to take questions, that people would sort of take him – sort of lower the bar for what they expected out of him. That said, you know, it is his full-time job to sort of steer the president through some of these challenges, and it’s not been a very smooth road recently. And so I don’t think that people are going to necessarily expect any less from him in terms of what he’s able to execute on in the White House.

NANCY CORDES: I did love that he said when I look like I’m really upset about something, the president’s saying that’s just my thinking face, I’m not really as upset as I look. I mean, look, he was basically coming out to say it isn’t an adult daycare here, I’m not having to manage the president’s every move. But of course, when you have to come out and say that, that is a sign that it’s not all smooth sailing within the White House.

SHAWNA THOMAS: Especially his chief of staff. Like, we don’t really actually see chiefs of staff go out and do press conferences or talk to the press that much. Every once in a while maybe a Meet The Press appearance or something like that. But that points to how weird this White House is that John Kelly, the chief of staff – General John Kelly – came out to have this kind of – this conversation with the press.

MS. DAVIS: And this was the second time in as many weeks that a senior member of this administration had to go out publicly and say to the press, no, I’m not going to quit, don’t worry. You know, Rex Tillerson had to do that last week. And so this was – you know, in trying to normalize some of this, I think Shawna’s right that he did sort of point to the fact that this is not normal.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: And try to – I’m just – I just keep going back trying to imagine Andy Card, Josh Bolten, Rahm Emanuel, Dennis McDonough, one of those guys coming out and saying what you read in the papers is wrong, I’m not quitting. I mean, it would – it’s just unfathomable. But we have this new normal when it’s just another day in the Trump administration.

MS. CORDES: Right, and I don’t think it was John Kelly’s choice to do that. I think there are 20 other things he’d rather come out and talk about. So you definitely got the sense that this was the president saying, hey, go out there and tell them you love your job and you’re not controlling me.

MR. COSTA: And his deputy just became the new nominee for Department of Homeland Security.

MS. THOMAS: Yes. There are rumors that things were not going well for her in the White House, but –

MR. COSTA: Kirstjen Nielsen?

MS. THOMAS: Kirstjen Nielsen, Kirstjen with a J I believe.

MR. COSTA: Right. That’s a Nordic spelling?

MS. THOMAS: I have no idea. (Laughter.) But she does have experience in homeland security. She was his chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security. She had worked in other parts of it before, and I think the White House even pointed out that she’s the first nominee for homeland security who had actually worked in the agency before. So we’ll see how that goes. I suspect that it will be pretty smooth sailing for her through the Senate.

MR. COSTA: Well, speaking of the Senate, in that chamber Republicans hold just a two-seat majority, and one of their own made a major announcement this week: Senator Susan Collins, an influential moderate voice, said she was considering running to be the governor of Maine.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): (From video.) I want to continue to play a key role in advancing policies that strengthen our nation, help our hardworking families, improve our health care system, and bring peace and stability to a troubled and violent world. And I have concluded that the best way that I can contribute to these priorities is to remain a member of the United States Senate. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. COSTA: Nancy, it was a revealing moment in the sense that many lawmakers you cover are, probably on the Republican side, considering maybe running for a different office, perhaps retiring. We saw that with Senator Corker. She decided to stay. What does it tell us?

MS. CORDES: Sure. I mean, there are some moderates who say this is not a place for a moderate right now, you know, I want to get out of here. It’s a very different experience for Susan Collins. She takes pride in the fact that she was one of those deciding votes on health care. She is in the catbird seat right now. She has tremendous power within her own conference – as she put it, a key role. And truth be told, there are some Republicans within that Senate conference who are glad that she’s there, who agree with her that, you know, for example on health care, the party’s – the party was moving too hastily and didn’t really have a clear plan. They were glad that she basically put her foot in the door. They didn’t want to have to do it, but they were glad she was there. And she was very proud of that vote she took, and you know, she has not been shy about saying that she thinks that her party is moving in the wrong direction on a couple of key issues right now. And that’s why she believes she can have more of an impact in the Senate, when you’ve got such a narrow majority, than she would at the statehouse in Maine.

MR. COSTA: And she’s such a big presence, Shawna, in terms of her political influence. On health care, she’s one of the main – well, she is a Maine senator. (Laughter.) But one of the central figures in stopping the Republican plan to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. And you think back even to the health care fights you covered in 2009 and ’10, the Maine ladies – then-Senator Olympia Snowe, Senator Collins – they were major figures then, too.

MS. THOMAS: To get something done. And it is interesting. Does this mean that her power will encourage the White House to try to court her more, and how much can she shape things? And what does that mean for Senator McConnell, what does that mean for the leadership, which she is not a part of? But she now has – I believe she is not up for reelection until 2020.

MR. COSTA: 2020.

MS. THOMAS: Yeah, so she now has four years, basically, or I guess three years, to kind of try to make this what she can. And it’ll be interesting because how that influences the 2020 election, what we see about the Republican Party, and what she means to that and the kind of people they decide to – well, now I’m assuming someone’s going to primary the president, which I should not assume, but what kind of independents run –

MR. COSTA: It’s a kind of fair assumption. There are many critics within the GOP.

MS. THOMAS: John Kasich. (Laughter.) Just to throw that out there. But what that does to the Republican Party, she has some power to sort of move the party in a way that, as governor, she wouldn’t have, and it’s interesting she made that choice.

MS. CORDES: And she really believes that the Senate can get back to –

MS. THOMAS: – doing things?

MS. CORDES: – more bipartisan cooperation, you know. I mean, you have to really be a true believer at this point. But, you know, she thinks that the two parties can work together again, but she knows that she’s one of the few people on her side who is really willing right now to walk the walk. And she’s got good relationships with a lot of people on the other side, but especially those who she thinks are moderates on the Democratic side that she can work with. And so I think she doesn’t want to give up on that dream just yet.

MR. COSTA: Let’s talk a little bit about another person, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There’s been speculation about his future in the administration for quite some time, and for the past week he’s been a public target for President Trump. The president even challenged Tillerson to an IQ test. But as the administration continues to reevaluate global crises, the question that comes up: What is the role of the secretary of state? What’s he – what’s he actually playing when it comes to foreign affairs, Michael?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, generally speaking he’s a(n) establishment figure. He’s preaching policies inside the administration that are in line with what I would call the kind of foreign policy establishment that goes from sort of center-left to center-right. And you know, one example would be on the Iran nuclear deal. He was a strong voice saying to Trump you actually don’t want to tear up the deal, you don’t want to rock this boat right now. And I think quite notably he has been – you know, we have lost focus for a good reason, because there’s so much else going on, but the most frightening and dangerous thing happening in the world right now is this escalating confrontation with North Korea, which could quite plausibly lead to a military exchange that could go nuclear. I mean, it’s really scary. And Tillerson is a proponent of a diplomatic solution. And Trump, although he has gone back and forth, and as recently as today he said something that suggested he might be open to diplomacy, has repeatedly suggested in the last couple weeks, indeed, he is – in fact, he is not – thinks there is no diplomatic solution, even undercut Tillerson when Tillerson was in Asia trying to kind of build support and leverage for diplomacy. And Trump was saying you’re wasting your time, which was an astounding thing to see. And, you know, the secretary of state is the top diplomat, and if he does not seem to have the president’s confidence, does not seem to be speaking for the president, he’s really crippled when he’s doing this work overseas. So it’s an amazing human drama. It’s, you know, the latest iteration of this strange Trump reality show. But again, the public policy consequence of it is quite alarming insofar as it means that we are – we don’t have a unified, concerted strategy when it comes to North Korea, because that’s very dangerous.

MR. COSTA: It seems like, Julie, that we are on Rex watch for so long. Is he gone? Is he on his way out? And some people told me that the White House has tried to repair the relationship. Do you think he’s here for a few more months, another year? What are your sources telling you?

MS. DAVIS: I think we’re still on Rex watch. I mean, I really do. I think what this last episode told us with the whole story about how he privately called the president a moron, and then him coming out and saying I’m not thinking of resigning, I never considered resigning, which we know from reporting that he actually did fairly seriously consider resigning. But I think what that all told us is just how toxic his relationships are with not just the president, but with a lot of the White House senior staff. They don’t think he has dealt well with the president. They say he has advisors who don’t agree with him on every issue, like Gary Cohn, who somehow manage to maneuver in their space without making it public and so open that, you know, he disagrees, and they don’t think that he has – that Rex Tillerson has been effective at that. And so I think that there’s still enough tension there that it’s really an open question.

That said, you know, there are all these challenges. The president has this big Asia trip, big long Asia trip coming up in November. He’s going to go to Korea. He’s going to be facing, you know, all of these issues – what to do about the Iran deal, what to do about North Korea. He needs somebody who is his top diplomat who he can trust. And so it’s not clear what would happen if Tillerson left at this – at this point, and I think that is a lot of what went into the decision that we saw last week. But I don’t think at all that we’re past this rocky period, and I wouldn’t expect necessarily to see him around in another year.

MR. CROWLEY: Rexit. (Laughter.)

MS. CORDES: Oh!

MR. COSTA: Brexit to Rexit.

MS. DAVIS: Eventual Rexit.

MS. THOMAS: That’s good.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, yeah.

MS. CORDES: Right. You know, and I think another thing that, you know, is potentially keeping him in the job for now as far as the president is concerned is this pact that’s been reported about, you know, that Tillerson and the secretary of defense and the also the secretary of treasury –

MR. COSTA: The Committee to Save America?

MS. CORDES: Exactly. You know, there is –

MR. COSTA: That’s what it’s called, this group, right?

MS. CORDES: Committee to Save America. That, you know – that if one goes, they all go. And I think that –

MR. COSTA: Do you believe that? I know the rumor’s out there, right? Everyone’s heard it.

MS. CORDES: Right. Well, some – you know, you got to think that they’ve at least talked about it.

MR. COSTA: Sure.

MS. CORDES: Even if they hadn’t before the rumors got out, you know, since the rumors came out they’ve all said, well, what do you think, should we? (Laughter.) But you know, it’s a – it’s a tricky decision for the president because, obviously, the wheels start to look like they’re coming off if too many members of your Cabinet depart within the first year. So even if you don’t like Rex Tillerson, letting him go, in addition to all the challenges that Julie was pointing out that he would face not having a top diplomat for who knows how long, until another one can be confirmed, you know, he also sends the signal that he can’t keep his top people in the job.

MS. THOMAS: And then who wants to step into that job and replace him?

MR. COSTA: Well, everyone’s talking about Ambassador Haley or CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

MS. THOMAS: Yes, but then you have to find people to go to replace those people too. (Laughter.) So, yes, those people are already in the administration. They’ve been confirmed.

MR. COSTA: But Congress doesn’t have much on its plate. (Laughter.)

MS. THOMAS: Shouldn’t they be doing this? They’re behind on a lot of things. But if you are someone who is outside the circle that has already been confirmed by Congress and you look at sort of Secretary Tillerson and the rumors that the people that he wanted to put in place he wasn’t allowed to by the White House, you look at the fact that the president tweets while he’s in Asia what you’re doing is dumb basically, why – and you have any experience in foreign policy – why would you want to get into this? And you don’t want to be in a situation where we don’t have, you know, an HHS secretary as well as the Department of – I mean, the State Department. I know what he’s called; sorry about that. (Laughter.) You don’t want to be in that situation. That’s scary.

MR. COSTA: Michael, just to close us out on this, on Tillerson, we’ve seen in history secretaries of state haven’t always been as powerful as the job itself. President Nixon had Kissinger, but then with Ronald Reagan you saw different kinds of experiences with his secretaries of state. He had Secretary Shultz, but – that’s correct, right, Shultz?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, mmm hmm.

MR. COSTA: In the context of all the presidents in the past, where do you put Tillerson’s experience?

MR. CROWLEY: Very, very low. (Laughter.) I mean, unfortunately, I really think that it could be the worst relationship between a president and a secretary of state. And it’s – the public drama around it, I think, is just – you know there have been relationships that weren’t totally trusting and weren’t totally partners where they’re acting in perfect sync. But this kind of, you know, open back and forth I think is just astounding. And again, it comes at such a dangerous moment. And you know, finding a diplomatic solution that will avoid a military confrontation with North Korea in which a lot of people are likely to die is so important, arguably the most important thing facing Trump right now, and this makes that harder. So there are lives at stake, and it’s important to remember that because at times it’s sort of comical. At the State Department briefing reporters were asking the State Department spokesman what is Rex Tillerson’s IQ, and it’s funny and everyone laughed, but remember what the stakes are.

MR. COSTA: We’ll leave it right there, and thanks, everyone, for watching. And we will be with you again on the Washington Week Extra , where you can take our online quiz, the Week-ly News Quiz. If you’ve been watching closely tonight, you’ll have a head start on the first two questions. So test your knowledge if you want to, and we’d invite you to, at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

I’m Robert Costa. And we’ll see you next time.

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