WASHINGTON — After hearing last week that President Trump had erupted in anger watching news clips of his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, telling a Fox News interviewer that the president’s view of a border wall was not “fully informed,” people around the White House wondered whether it was a mere blip, or a turning point in their relationship.
Some of the answer may have come on Wednesday evening in Mr. Kelly’s office.
To the surprise of the 20 or so reporters who were in the office, Mr. Trump dropped into a briefing on immigration that was only getting started. It was ostensibly just to say hello after Mr. Trump learned from Mr. Kelly that the session was taking place. Mr. Trump, despite his criticism of “fake news,” rarely misses a chance to speak with reporters.
The president boasted that he was eager to speak with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He emphasized his interest in a path to citizenship as a solution for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. He expressed joy about going to Davos, Switzerland.
The planned background briefing on immigration was abruptly called off after the president left.
A senior aide to Mr. Trump said that he was delighted with his performance, and never expressed unhappiness with Mr. Kelly for hosting reporters in a session that was initially put on background, at the White House’s request.
But one senior White House official described the visit as a shot at Mr. Kelly, regardless of whether the chief of staff saw it that way. It also meant that the White House’s desire for the session to be on background, meaning that Mr. Kelly could not be identified as the source of the information, went out the window.
The president barely knew Mr. Kelly, a retired general, when he made him chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus, but the relationship has lasted longer than most he has had after three different campaign leadership teams and the departures of a chief strategist, national security adviser and press secretary. That may be part of the problem.
“Trump is conflicted because on the one hand, he holds these generals in awe, but on the other hand, he gets tired of people,” said Chris Whipple, the author of “The Gatekeepers,” a book about White House chiefs of staff. “The first day on the job you have more influence than on your second or third, and it’s been almost six months for Kelly.”
It is hard to discern how Mr. Kelly views his job, or his relationship with a hard-to-control chief executive, beyond a sense of duty. Mr. Kelly is still respected, or feared, by the president and his staff to a degree that Mr. Priebus was not. Mr. Trump, in private conversations, still refers to Mr. Kelly as “the general.”
And their breezy chemistry was fairly on display Wednesday night, when the president referred to him as “chief,” and jokingly called for a fix on immigration by the time he returns Friday from his two-day trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum.
Yet friends and even family members have had difficulty getting through the tight protective screen that Mr. Kelly has built around the president. From some of those family members, Mr. Trump recently learned that his chief of staff has canceled meetings with some of their old friends, without letting Mr. Trump know first, according to three people familiar with what happened.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, has at various times expressed frustration with Mr. Kelly, according to people familiar with the conversations. Other White House aides have said that Mr. Kelly has at times appeared dismissive of her in meetings or on email exchanges with other advisers, and has sought to limit the portfolios of both her and her husband, Jared Kushner. Mr. Kelly has struggled to handle the couple, who are in the unusual position of being official members of the staff and who have hosted policy dinners at their homes. But Mr. Kelly has insisted that he has no personal animus toward them, according to one White House aide.
Ms. Trump has also complained to colleagues that people try to use her as a cudgel against Mr. Kelly, imparting a level of anger at him that she says she herself does not feel.
In a statement on Thursday, she denied that she had issues with Mr. Kelly and praised the job he was doing as chief of staff.
“I typically ignore false rumors spread by bad actors in an attempt to sow internal division,” she said, “but I feel compelled to respond and say that it is an honor to work for Chief Kelly, who is doing a fantastic job. There exists a deeper bond among the team today than at any point prior.”
Mr. Kelly did not travel with the president to Davos, a fact that elicited suspicion about whether he was being excluded in the same way that Mr. Priebus was before he was eventually pushed out. But a senior White House official said that Mr. Kelly had decided before Wednesday’s impromptu gaggle to remain behind because he wanted the time to consider his strategy for the next few weeks. On Tuesday night, Mr. Trump gives his State of the Union address, a chance to set out his agenda before a huge prime-time audience.
Names of prospective replacements for Mr. Kelly, including members of Congress and the cabinet, have been bandied about outside the White House. Mr. Trump has not engaged in the speculation — at least, not yet.
“My experience with Donald Trump — if he doesn’t like somebody, he lets somebody know pretty quickly through direct comments or indirect,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of the president. “And I haven’t seen that about General Kelly at all. If anything, the president’s always been very positive in his references to him.”
When Mr. Kelly told the president that he would meet with reporters, according to one White House official, Mr. Trump asked whether he should come by just for a moment. Mr. Kelly agreed.
Mr. Trump, who sees himself as his own best communications adviser, walked through West Wing corridors that he has rarely traveled without anyone giving a heads-up to his communications director, Hope Hicks. By the time some of Mr. Trump’s press aides learned that he had volunteered to speak to Mr. Mueller’s investigators under oath, the news was all over cable television.
His aides scrambled to learn what precisely the president had said, but Mr. Trump was in a buoyant mood as he prepared to depart for Switzerland.
He also gave Mr. Kelly an endorsement of sorts.
“He’s doing great,” Mr. Trump told the reporters, noting that he had praised Mr. Kelly on Twitter this week. “Fake news yesterday or two days ago,” he said. “I rarely put out a tweet praising somebody, but only when they get a false story.”