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Looking At The White House John Kelly Inherits

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Inside the White House, the campaign against leaks to the media has gotten plenty of attention. And it was the issue that drove now-fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci to deliver a profanity-laced interview to a reporter. Here he is calling into CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: I don't like these leaks. And so we're going to stop the leaks. And if we don't stop the leaks, I'm going to stop you. It's just really that simple.

CHANG: But more leaks were behind a story that appeared in The Washington Post the very day the new White House chief of staff fired Scaramucci. That story said that President Trump dictated a misleading statement his son wrote about meeting with a Russian lawyer. Well, Robert Costa of The Washington Post is here in our studios now. Thanks for coming by.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to join you.

CHANG: So let's start with General John Kelly. You know, you know him. You've covered him. Do you think he has the ability to get the White House in order?

COSTA: I've covered General Kelly for quite some time. And I see him as a steady presence, this longtime Marine general, who has been through a lot. He's seen his son die in combat. And he's built this bond with President Trump as generational peers. I believe the president, based on my reporting, sees him as a steady hand who is not aligned with any of these factions that have been battling each other within the White House.

CHANG: Do you think he'll be able to stop the leaks coming out of the White House constantly?

COSTA: This chorus about the leaks from within the West Wing is really a reflection of President Trump. He fumes about this behind the scenes. But a lot of time, these so-called leaks, they're really just reporting, reporters talking to officials, sometimes on background, trying to provide information and news stories. I don't think you can ever really stop that from happening.

CHANG: Well, if that's the case, then what is the strategy to at least give the appearance of stopping the leaks for John Kelly?

COSTA: Well, you could see the process become formalized within this administration. And by that, I mean Attorney General Jeff Sessions is planning later this week to have a press conference where he talks about the Justice Department aggressively going after leaks in the administration.

And to my sources, there's a big difference between leaks about palace intrigue around President Trump and leaks from some of these agencies about what's happening in the federal government. They really want to make sure they stop the latter.

CHANG: Where does Kelly fall in terms of the two camps in the White House? There's the more moderate wing of, say, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner or the more populist, nationalist wing of Steve Bannon. Where would he fit in?

COSTA: It's been striking to watch the deference to General Kelly in his early days as chief of staff. You see both Jared Kushner, the son-in-law; Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter; and Steve Bannon, the populist, nationalist strategist, within the White House; Steve Miller. Everyone says they're reporting now to General Kelly because there is a sense, when I'm over at the White House reporting, that after six months, there's been a lot of controversy, a lot of stalled priorities on the agenda. And they just want to see if something else can work. Maybe General Kelly, in their view, could be the solution.

CHANG: Does the way that Kelly spent his first six months as the head of Homeland Security, does that tell us about...

COSTA: Yes.

CHANG: ...The effectiveness of the way he imposes a chain of command? And will that carry over to the White House as chief of staff?

COSTA: It's the most telling question because President Trump has looked at General Kelly's tenure at the Department of Homeland Security. And he sees someone who's not a dramatic figure, who's been able to, in a non-ideological way, enforce these ideological policies when it comes to border security, going after undocumented workers.

Kelly has forcefully defended the travel ban on Capitol Hill and in the courts. And you see in him a presence that Trump likes. The president likes someone with that demeanor, that general style. But he also likes someone who really is able to execute his orders without complaint, without drama. That's why General Kelly got this job.

CHANG: I also want to get to a story The New York Times broke last night, and your paper is reporting on it this morning - that the Justice Department is planning to investigate universities over affirmative action policies they say discriminate against white applicants. What does all of that say about how the Justice Department is changing under President Trump?

COSTA: It's part of this movement on the right side of American politics that affirmative action has not been effective in their eyes. And they want to see more opportunity for white applicants, Asian-American applicants, who they feel have been discriminated against.

Of course, this is very controversial. A lot of civil rights groups think the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division should not be used in this way to change policies against affirmative action that have been affirmed by the Supreme Court. So this is going to be another showdown here in Washington. Will Attorney General Sessions really move in this hard-line direction when it comes to affirmative action?

CHANG: I mean, could this be - could this have been an effort by Sessions to try to improve his relationship with Trump, given kind of the terrible, rough week he had last week or - and the week before?

COSTA: (Laughter) It could be a play, strategically. But really, it's actually who Attorney General Jeff Sessions is. He has caused the president to have consternation because of the Russia probe and his recusal. But when it comes to his policies, enforcement, law enforcement policy, affirmative action, he is a Trump-style Republican. He does not mind going after some of these issues that are very much issues that Republicans try to shy away from usually. Jeff Sessions, our attorney general, President Trump - they want to confront them head on and be disruptors.

CHANG: It's a reminder that there's so much more that connects them than separates them, the president and the attorney general.

COSTA: They are one in the same. I saw it up close on the campaign trail, on all of the issues. It's the Russia probe that has divided them.

CHANG: That's Robert Costa, reporter for The Washington Post and the moderator of PBS's "Washington Week." Thank you so much for coming in.

COSTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.