Accuracy in Media

There are eight people in Washington whose job right now is to get rid of White House chief of staff John Kelly, and mainstream media are assisting in the effort.

Carol Lee, Courtney Kube, Kristen Welker and Stephanie Ruhle of NBC teamed up for a story headlined, “Kelly thinks he’s saving U.S. from disaster, calls Trump ‘idiot,’ say White House staffers.”

Morale has eroded in the West Wing in recent months because of comments by Kelly to “aides that include insulting the president’s intelligence and casting himself as the savior of the country,” according to NBC via those eight “current and former White House officials.

“The officials said Kelly portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe, curbing the erratic urges of a president who has a questionable grasp on policy issues and the functions of government. He has referred to Trump as ‘an idiot’ multiple times to underscore his point, according to four officials who say they’ve witnessed the comments.”

Kelly’s public image as a retired four-star general “instilling discipline on a chaotic White House and an impulsive president belies what they describe as the undisciplined and indiscreet approach he’s employed as chief of staff,” NBC News reported, renewing the all-is-chaos theme familiar to readers of mainstream media.

“The private manner aides describe may shed new light on why Kelly now finds himself – just nine months into the job – grappling with diminished influence and a drumbeat of questions about how long he’ll remain at the White House.

‘He says stuff you can’t believe,’ said one senior White House official. ‘He’ll say it and you think, ‘This is not what you should be saying.’’”

Kelly called the story “total BS” and said he is “committed to the president, his agenda and our country.” Three White House spokespeople said they’d never heard Kelly call anyone an idiot and that if he did say he was saving the country, he was doing so in jest.

The media ignored the denials. NBC News quoted presidential historian Michael Beschloss, a Harvard professor and friend of Bill Clinton’s, as saying, “Kelly’s comments about Trump” – even though they are not Kelly’s comments, according to Kelly – “suggest a lack of respect for the sitting president of a kind that we haven’t seen before.”

A piece from Slate blogger Ben Mathis-Lilley makes a point the writer may not have considered.

“You may recall this ‘Relatively competent/functional person says privately that Trump is dumb’ trop from such previous stories as The Secretary of State Won’t Specifically Deny That He Referred to the President as a ‘F—ing Moron’ and ‘The National Security Adviser Reportedly Called the President an ‘idiot’ and a ‘kindergartner.’”

These stories do land on familiar themes – unnamed sources, strong denials by the White House, support from the president for the person in question.

The Washington Post tried to advance the story by quoting still more unnamed sources.

“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.”

It then piled on with a Trump-won’t-like-this barrage. “The quick denial underscores how damaging the remarks could be for Kelly,” the Post reported. “Trump, according to longtime advisers, hates the notion that any aide can control him – or that he lacks intelligence.”

CNN said a White House official “pointed out a big difference between the Kelly incident and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he was accused of calling the president a moron is that “Kelly immediately denied the report and denounced it to the president’s face. Tillerson declined to do so, simply saying he wouldn’t play that Washington game.”

CNN concluded Trump had been mad at Kelly over his handling of White House aide Rob Porter’s dismissal and has been reporting since that time Kelly was on the way out.

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