President Donald Trump's very public pushback against his chief of staff's statement that the president's views on a border wall have "evolved" is casting a fresh spotlight on the limits of John Kelly's ability to manage White House tumult, navigate Capitol Hill and keep a demanding, scattershot president on track.
Trump fumed at Kelly privately and chided his chief of staff over his remarks. No stranger to upbraiding his closest aides in remarkably public ways, Trump did not use Kelly's name in a series of tweets Thursday but his target was unmistakable.
"The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it," said one morning tweet. Another reiterated Trump's long-ago campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the border structure, while a third insisted that the wall would be an essential part of any immigration agreement.
"If there is no Wall, there is no Deal!" Trump wrote.
His comments on Twitter came a day after Kelly told Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill that some of Trump's hard-line immigration stances were "uninformed," that Mexico would never pay for the wall and that the wall would not stretch across the entire southern border. Kelly, in a rare interview, later told Fox News that the president's campaign promises were unrealistic.
"He has evolved in the way he looks at things," Kelly said. "Campaign to governing are two different things, and this president has been very flexible in terms of what's in the realm of the possible."
Though the retired Marine general had made similar remarks about the wall before, Trump fumed when he saw the interview Wednesday night. He made a series of calls to associates and vented about his chief of staff, bitterly complaining that Kelly made him look like a flip-flopper on his signature campaign issue, according to a person familiar with the conversations but not authorized to discuss private conversations.
And Trump complained that he felt like the chief of staff had portrayed him as a child who had to be managed, a charge that particularly irks the president in the wake of the way he was portrayed in the recent Michael Wolff book, "Fire and Fury." The president also upbraided Kelly in the aftermath of the Fox News interview, according to two people familiar with the exchange but not authorized to speak about it publicly.
Later Thursday, at an appearance in Pennsylvania, Trump signaled he was ready to move on — at least in public. He praised his chief of staff, saying Kelly "has done a really great job. He is a very special guy."
The White House dismissed reports of tension between the two men.
"The president is frustrated with the media coverage of the last 24 hours," said Raj Shah, deputy White House spokesman. He added that Trump and Kelly were together at the White House on Thursday morning, saying: "they have a great relationship and that continues."
Though this was the most public rebuke of Kelly that Trump has delivered, it is not the first time the president has chafed under the watch of his chief of staff since he took up the job in late July. Trump has complained to associates that Kelly has clamped down on his free-wheeling style, including his veritable open-door policy at the Oval Office, suggesting it's a reason why he is spending more time in the residential area of the White House.
But White House officials and outside advisers with knowledge of Trump and Kelly's relationship predicted it would survive the current episode, which was reminiscent of Trump's public rebukes of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Unlike his relationships with those men, which appear permanently frayed, Trump has previously told confidants he can't afford to lose Kelly.
An immigration hawk who has often aligned himself on the issue with hardline adviser Steven Miller, Kelly was a driving force last week in scuttling a potential deal with Congress to protect young immigrants from deportation, telling Trump it would likely not sit well with his base. While Kelly is widely credited with implementing clear procedures at the White House, he is not a policy expert and has at times left lawmakers on the Hill confused about where the White House stands.
"I don't think John Kelly's irrational. I think he's never closed a deal before politically," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has expressed frustration with the collapse of the immigration deal.
Kelly has frequently said his top job is to control the flow of information to the president, but he has not tried to intervene with arguably the two most important ways by which Trump interacts with news: television and Twitter.
Kelly has repeatedly said that he doesn't pay attention to the president's tweets. But just in the last week, Trump's posts have plunged Congress into chaos when he staked out contradictory positions on both a children's health insurance program and a foreign surveillance act.
At times, Kelly seems to try to shield himself from the president's social media posts. During a recent trip to Camp David, Kelly told reporters that he hadn't seen the president's explosive tweets declaring himself a very stable genius.
"Nah," he told reporters with a smile when asked whether he wanted to see the tweets.
He eventually relented.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller contributed reporting.