Kelly's agonizing relationship with the press

White House chief of staff John Kelly has declined all requests to appear on the Sunday show circuit, even though the president loves seeing his staff mount combative defenses of him on TV.

But he was willing to sit down with a National Public Radio reporter he has known for years – John Burnett, who forged a good relationship with Kelly when he spent time embedded with the four-star general in Iraq, sources said – for an extended stemwinder that circumvented the Washington reporters Kelly has come to view with a mix of distrust and disdain.

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Kelly still stumbled. He said that undocumented immigrants seeking to enter the country “don’t have the skills” to assimilate and called them “overwhelmingly rural people” in comments that sounded derogatory. But that wasn’t all.

“Certainly the president is, you know, somewhat embarrassed, frankly,” the chief of staff said of the Russia probe. “When world leaders come in, it’s kind of like you know Bibi Netanyahu is here and he – who’s under investigation himself – and it’s like, you know, you walk in and you know the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around this kind of thing.”

It was a surprising comment to make about a president who rarely admits any personal weakness or error, with a bonus oddity of bringing up a completely unrelated investigation into one Trump’s closest allies on the world stage. But it didn’t shock White House aides who have struggled with how to turn the chief of staff into a productive surrogate for the administration.

“The staff has no confidence that he can handle any media,” one former White House aide said. “They can’t figure out how to get him to do any interview without screwing up.”

Kelly, too, has struggled to reconcile his growing frustration with the political press and his desire to engage in order to put to bed the rumors that he’s on the outs with the president – or that he’s nowhere to be seen.

When he has spoken out, he often only helps widen that divide. In an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier last January, Kelly said the president was not “fully informed” when he promised to build a border wall during the campaign. His statement directly undercut the president’s stated position on one of his defining promises.

Former colleagues said Kelly generally does not like being prepped for interviews, and won’t read talking points. He has a fraught relationship with the White House press team, and more recently has relied on his own aide, Zachary Fuentes, to respond to stories on his behalf.

He’s even tripped up when speaking to reporters off the record. In March, Kelly told reporters that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been on the toilet when he phoned him to tell him he was fired. The embarrassing comment was made off the record to a roomful of reporters, but was reported by outlets that were not in the room and unbound by any ground rules of the exchange.

Those experiences have soured Kelly on the Washington press. “He doesn’t trust the D.C. press corps,” said one White House aide.

It’s a change for Kelly, who one longtime confidant said “trusted the Pentagon press corps.” At the Department of Homeland Security, he pushed for more press access and wanted to mimic the Pentagon press apparatus. “He gave me as his press secretary very clear direction to engage with the press,” said David Lapan, who served as Kelly’s press secretary at DHS. “He understands the importance of a free press, and the need for organizations to tell their stories through the press.”

Kelly allies said he has adopted more of a “siege mentality” since going to work out of the White House. His choice of NPR as a venue came as somewhat of a surprise to his colleagues. Trump is not known as a public radio aficionado, and by sitting down with NPR, Kelly was hardly targeting the usual “audience of one” that White House officials and cabinet secretaries are often speaking to when they make public statements.

The chance to sit down with a reporter he knows from his previous life may have appealed to Kelly who, according to a confidant, has “grown distasteful because of the sensational nature that revolves around reporting on the White House. He doesn’t seen the value in it.”

When it came to NPR – an outlet that Trump allies mock as the preferred listening station of liberal college professors and taxi drivers – Kelly didn’t even go through the press department. He chose and scheduled the interview himself, said one person familiar with the planning.

And he stands by his unvarnished style, even if it keeps backfiring on him. On the rare occasions when he meets with reporters in his office, he cuts out any small talk. He often starts out interviews with a simple command: “Shoot.”

He hinted at his frustration in the NPR interview. “There’s times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of, which is just about everybody who works at the complex, and wonder whether it’s worth it to be subjected to that,” he said.

But it may be more his position rather than the press that’s at fault for Kelly’s gaffes. On Friday afternoon, he was forced to clarify some of his NPR comments.

“Distracted” was a more accurate word than “embarrassed” to describe the president’s reaction to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Kelly told reporters in the Rose Garden. But he very well could have been describing his own relationship with the press.

“It’s a witch hunt, right?” he said. “It distracts him. Not too much, but it’s unfair.”

Source: Politico

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