By Niall Stanage - 09-12-17 19:19 PM EDT
New White House chief of staff John Kelly is bringing order to what has been a chaotic presidency, according to several sources around President Trump.
There are fewer leaks, especially in relation to "palace intrigue" stories of who's up and who's down.
Divisive figures have left the building.
And Trump's response to recent hurricanes has won widespread praise, even from people who are not natural allies of the president.
But that doesn't answer one overarching question - whether Trump himself will buck the restraints that Kelly has imposed. The president's outsize personality is not easily muted.
Behind the scenes, sources laud one quality above all: Kelly's ability to smooth the process of White House decisionmaking.
All "paper" for Trump now has to go through White House staff secretary Rob Porter, according to one source, diminishing the likelihood of questionable information reaching the president.
Most staff and Cabinet members can no longer drop by the Oval Office for a casual chat with the commander in chief, several sources said. And those conversations that do take place there tend to have a more tightly defined agenda - and a shorter list of attendees.
It's a big contrast to how the White House was run under Kelly's predecessor, Reince Priebus.
One source familiar with White House thinking said the administration pre-Kelly was dogged by "haphazardness."
"It was difficult to prioritize what needed to be accomplished because the priority was [determined by] whoever was in the Oval or whatever information made it to the Oval," this source said. "It wasn't 'We need to have a meeting on Monday because this thing needs to be decided on Tuesday.'"
The freewheeling nature of the Preibus era at times created baffling situations.
A meeting might be in progress on one subject, only for another to start - with a new raft of attendees - before the first had finished, the first source said.
Trump, according to this person's account, would canvass the opinion of everyone in the room, irrespective of whether they had any particular expertise in the matter at hand.
That's not how it is now. And Trump loyalists insist Kelly deserves considerable credit.
"He is making Donald Trump better," said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior adviser to Trump's presidential campaign. "I think that it's been pretty amazing."
Not everyone is happy, of course.
Some Cabinet secretaries who were used to having walk-in privileges to the White House have found their access circumscribed. A few members of Trump's orbit who are normally voluble declined to discuss Kelly's influence at all.
Others draw a distinction between better organization, for which they give Kelly credit, and his personnel decisions, about which they are more ambivalent. Some complain that he has gotten rid of ardent Trump loyalists without any apparent clear idea of who might replace them - or whether they will be replaced.
Stephen Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, departed soon after Kelly arrived. Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, followed him out the door.
Bennett, the former senior adviser, said that Kelly would not have pushed such figures out "without Trump's blessing."
He added that Bannon and Gorka were "more aligned" with his own ideology, but "you have to do whatever makes Trump better and more successful."
Many Republicans, inside and outside the White House, want to see how Kelly's improvements translate into action.
GOP strategist Doug Heye said that although he had "nothing but positive" things to say about Kelly, the White House "still faces the issues facing all of Washington. We need to get tax reform done. We still have to repeal and replace ObamaCare. The things that Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail still need to be done."
Heye also gave a blunt summation of one of Kelly's biggest challenges: "constantly managing what the president says."
Several sources emphasized that the president is not going to change his personality, or his overall approach to politics, at this point. Combative tweets and impetuous public remarks are sure to continue.
Kelly was reminded of this in dramatic fashion during his first month as chief of staff. A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed after being struck by a car, allegedly driven by a man who harbored neo-Nazi sympathies, amid unrest at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Trump blamed "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides" for what had happened.
The remark, and others like it, sparked a firestorm of criticism - including from many Republicans, who argued that the president was drawing a false and dangerous moral equivalence between white supremacists on one side, and those who oppose them on the other.
On one occasion, an NBC News camera caught Kelly shaking his head and appearing to wince as he listened to Trump answer journalists' questions about Charlottesville.
"He had no control over that," a Republican strategist with ties to the White House said, referring to the episode as a whole. "He could not control what the president said. He tried to put a process in place there - until Trump saw on the news that he was being handled, and rejected it."
That typified what Kelly could do, this person suggested - but also pointed to the limits of his influence.
"Kelly has completely reorganized the process of how the Oval Office does business and how the White House does business," the strategist said. "He has had a marginal impact on the way Trump does business."
The source familiar with White House thinking sounded another note of caution. Even though Kelly had instilled some discipline, that had come at the cost of robbing Trump of some of the freewheeling, improvisational approach he savors.
Sooner or later, the president might bridle at such restraints.
Trump "likes intel and, frankly, gossip," the source said. Kelly had succeeded in curbing the tittle-tattle - for now.
But would Trump continue to stand for that, the source wondered?
"I am pleasantly surprised it has lasted this long. But I am skeptical that it can last forever."
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.