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Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly started yesterday with prescient bravado.

What we’re hearing... The retired four-star Marine general told about 20 West Wing officials — including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — in the 8 a.m. senior staff meeting: This is on the record, since you’re all going to go out and tell the press, anyway.

On the Washington Post front page, above the fold, was the headline: "Trump plans to replace McMaster, maybe others."

Kelly stunned the room by declaring: We all read the same newspapers and watch the same shows. Contrary to what’s been reported, H.R. and I are still here.

  • Kelly then told the silent staffers: The press's worst day was when I came in. The press wants to take down the president. I stand between the press and the president. They have to take me down first.

Lindsay Reynolds, the first lady's chief of staff, broke the tension by joking: “We thought this was Black Friday — everybody gets fired.”

  • Economic adviser Gary Cohn topped her: “I can’t get fired. I already resigned.”
  • During senior staff meetings, the staff goes around the room, and General McMaster usually makes several orderly, numbered points.
  • Yesterday, he passed when his turn came.

All of this was before Kelly called in reporters for an off-the-record meeting (Axios didn't attend or make any agreement, so we're able to share the contents with you) where he acknowledged that Trump himself was probably responsible for a significant number of the stories about staffing chaos.

  • As we reported yesterday, and we told you in Axios PM, Kelly said it’s likely that Trump is talking to people outside the White House, who then talk to reporters.
  • Kelly also said that past cocaine use by Larry Kudlow, named this week to succeed Cohn, won’t be a problem for his security clearance, as it is public knowledge. Kelly joked that the 1990s were “a crazy time.”
  • Staffers were shocked that Kelly revealed to reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during a diplomatic swing through Africa, was suffering from a stomach bug and was using a toilet when Kelly told him to cut the trip short and return to Washington.

Be smart: Kelly defended McMaster at the senior staff meeting — even though the chief is widely known to be casting about for a replacement.

  • Now you'll better appreciate this bit in the WashPost story: "The mood inside the White House in recent days has verged on mania ... White House officials have begun betting about which staffer will be ousted next."

Go deeper ... "On Leadership" column in WashPost Sunday Business section, "Trump's 'cascade of chaos': When there's too much turnover at the top."

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Go deeper

Updated 23 mins ago - Health

U.K. first nation to clear Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for mass rollout

A health care worker during the phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial by the Pfizer and BioNTech in Ankara, Turkey, in October. Photo: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The United Kingdom's government announced Wednesday it's approved Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, which "will be made available across the U.K. from next week."

Why it matters: The U.K. has beaten the U.S. to become the first Western country to give emergency approval for a vaccine against a virus that's killed nearly 1.5 million people globally.

2 hours ago - World

NYT: Biden won't immediately remove U.S. tariffs on China

President-elect Joe Biden during an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Trump's 25% tariffs imposed on China under the phase one trade deal will remain in place at the start of the new administration, President-elect Biden said in an interview with the New York Times published early Wednesday.

Details: "I'm not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs," Biden said. He plans to conduct a full review of the current U.S. policy on China and speak with key allies in Asia and Europe to "develop a coherent strategy," he said.

Trump threatens to veto Defense spending bill over social media shield

Photo: Erin Schaff - Pool/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Tuesday a threat to veto a must-pass end-of-year $740 billion bill defense-spending authorization bill unless Congress repeals a federal law that protects social media sites from legal liability.

Why it matters: Trump's attempt to get Congress to end the tech industry protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the latest escalation in his war on tech giants over what he and some other Republicans perceive as bias against conservatives.

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