White House chief of staff John Kelly denies calling Trump an ‘idiot’

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly watches as President Donald Trump speaks Feb. 2 during a meeting in the Oval Office.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly watches as President Donald Trump speaks Feb. 2 during a meeting in the Oval Office.

(Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)
The Washington Post

White House chief of staff John Kelly on Monday denied that he said President Donald Trump is an “idiot,” calling an NBC News story “total BS.”

Kelly’s statement came about 45 minutes after NBC News published a report that described a number of fights between Trump and his embattled chief of staff. The outlet reported that Kelly often tells senior aides that they have to save the president from himself and his impulses — and that Trump does not understand policy.

“He doesn’t even understand what DACA is. He’s an idiot,” Kelly told White House aides, according NBC News, which cites two White House officials present for the meeting.

“I spend more time with the President than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS,” Kelly said in a statement released by the White House press office. “I am committed to the President, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”


The Washington Post has not independently confirmed that Kelly called Trump an “idiot,” but the chief of staff has occasionally referred to the president in derisive terms and has threatened to quit, current and former White House aides said.

The quick denial underscores how damaging the remarks could be for Kelly. Trump, according to longtime advisers, hates the notion that any aide can control him — or that he lacks intelligence.

The president grew angry last year when NBC reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “moron.” Tillerson did not deny the comment, instead saying at the time in response to questions that, “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.”

In one interview, the president seemed to challenge Tillerson to an IQ test. Tillerson was fired via tweet last month.

Kelly, who joined the administration last July and was charged with instilling discipline and order into a chaotic West Wing, has fallen out of favor with Trump in recent months and is no longer included in many key decisions, according to White House aides. The president shouted at Kelly after the chief of staff went on Fox News and said Trump has “evolved” on building a border wall, The Washington Post has reported.

Trump has chafed at Kelly’s strictures and limitations, and other staff members have become convinced that Kelly is not always truthful, particularly after his conflicting stories on the dismissal of aide Rob Porter following allegations of spousal abuse.

The NBC story also said that Trump had wanted to remove troops from the Korean Peninsula in February before the Winter Olympics, but Kelly eventually convinced him not to after a loud fight. Trump has mused in recent months about pulling troops out of the country, aides say, and told donors in Missouri last month that he might do so if South Korea did not make concessions on trade.