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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

3 hours ago - World

Scoop: Iran preparing to enrich weapons-grade uranium, Israel warns U.S.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference. Photo: Presidency of Iran handout via Getty

Israel has shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon, two U.S. sources briefed on the issue tell me.

Why it matters: Enriching to 90% would bring Iran closer than ever to the nuclear threshold. The Israeli warnings come as nuclear talks resume in Vienna, with Iran returning to the negotiating table on Monday after a five-month hiatus.

Biden: Fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Monday said that the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic."

Driving the news: Biden said later this week the administration will be releasing a strategy on how "we're going to fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: WHO says Omicron poses "very high" risk — Fauci says Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S. — U.S. restricts air travel from 8 countries over Omicron concerns.
  2. Politics: Biden says fight against Omicron won't include "shutdowns or lockdowns."
  3. States: New York declares state of emergency amid concerns over Omicron.
  4. World: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating worldWHO warns against travel bans on southern African countries — First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

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