The president wants rid of the former Marine Corps general but “doesn’t know who to call to fire him” as Mr Kelly himself usually carries out his sackings, according to an administration staffer.
The official was speaking on condition of anonymity toNew Yorkmagazine journalist Olivia Nuzzi, who was invited to a bizarre private meeting with Mr Trump when he learned she was planning to report on tension between the president and his chief of staff.
“I just heard that you were doing a story on… this stuff,” Mr Trump told her in the Oval Office.
“General Kelly’s doing a very good job,” he insisted. “We have a very good relationship. The White House is running very, very smoothly.”
Speculation has long swirled about the president’s fractious relationship with Mr Kelly.
The chief of staff’s influence within the administrationis said to have severely diminishedsince his appointment in July last year, with Mr Trump spurning his attempts to implement more traditional processes.
One Republican toldPoliticoearlier this year that Mr Kelly was now “chief of staff in name only”.
According to a book by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, Mr Kellyhas repeatedly called Mr Trump “an idiot”and described the president as “unhinged”.
Rumours of the chief of staff’s imminent departure persisted even after the White House announced he would stay on until 2020.
“I think the president just doesn’t know who to call to fire him,” the administration official toldNew York. “Normally if the president wanted to fire somebody, he would call Kelly to do it. But there’s nobody else to call.”
They added: “When the president says, I need you to leave, Kelly just ignores him.”
Mr Trump insisted he was “very happy” with his chief of staff and was not looking to replace him.
He called Mr Kelly into the meeting with Ms Nuzzi in a bid to prove his point. Close behind was secretary of state Mike Pompeo, soon followed by vice-president Mike Pence.
“We’re all having lunch,” explained Mr Trump. “This was not a set up.”
Asked what he thought of the president, Mr Kelly said: “He’s a great president. Do we disagree sometimes? We do. My job is to make sure that that man has all of the information available from whatever source so that he makes the best decision, and then, when that decision is made, my job is to then implement that decision.
“There is, to the best of my knowledge, no chaos in this building. We’ve gotten rid of a few bad actors, but everyone works very, very well together.”
During the meeting, Mr Trump handed Ms Nuzzi a bullet-pointed list of 58 things he said showed the success of his presidency.
The two printed pages were headed, in bold and underlined capital letters: “Trump administration accomplishments.”
The journalist described the encounter as “very weird”.