The worst White House chiefs of staff are those who enable the worst instincts of the presidents they are supposed to serve with wise counsel and appropriate caution. And John Kelly is the worst of the worst.
Fabulists imagined that when the retired general took over management of the Trump White House, he would stabilize things. But that was never going to be the case—as the politicians and pundits who once made excuses for Kelly have begun to recognize, thanks to a brief-but-costly government-shutdown crisis.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Kelly “helped scuttle a bipartisan Senate deal and made the phone call that ended immigration negotiations on Friday. That paved the way for the partial government shutdown.” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who tried to cobble together the immigration deal that could have averted the shutdown that began at midnight Saturday and headed toward a conclusion on Monday, says of the president: “I don’t think he was well-served by his staff.”
A reporter asked Graham if he was talking about the chief of staff. “John Kelly is a fine man,” the senator replied. “But he’s also part of the staff.”
In fairness, Kelly is not the most unsettling staffer in the Trump White House. That honor belongs to Stephen Miller—the anti-immigrant extremist, Jeff Session aide, Stephen Bannon acolyte, and wild-eyed talk-show guest who is always trying to steer the country toward xenophobia. As Graham says, “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years.”
But Kelly empowers Miller by putting him in the room with Trump, and he does so because the general invariably enables the president’s cruelest sentiments and ugliest tendencies when it comes to immigration—and a host of other issues.
Kelly has from the start identified himself as a yes-man, an outspoken and over-the-top Trump loyalist. He announced during a February House Homeland Security Committee oversight session that “I work for one man. His name is Donald Trump.” Translation: Even if Kelly disagrees with a policy, even if he has doubts about whether Trump is doing the right thing, he is not going to share those anxieties with the members of Congress who are charged with overseeing the executive branch. Nor, it appears, is Kelly inclined to share those anxieties with the president.
Kelly likes to present himself as a bold truth-teller. The retired four-star Marine general got good marks when, during his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, he told a Senate committee, “I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations.”
Once he joined the cabinet, however, Kelly made himself over as a cheerleader for Trump and Trumpism. This was not just a matter of misplaced loyalty. It was, and is, a matter of shared right-wing ideology. What attracted Trump to Kelly was never the retired general’s candor. It was Kelly’s linking of border-security issues with the “War of Terror” that got Trump and his transition team excited about giving the general the DHS brief. While serving as head of the US Southern Command, the general told a 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that “Terrorist organizations could seek to leverage those same smuggling routes [in Central American and Mexico] to move operatives with intent to cause grave harm to our citizens or even bring weapons of mass destruction into the United States.”
That was bold language—“a little over the top,” in the view of Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigration-reform group America’s Voice. But members of the Senate comforted themselves with the expectation that Kelly’s experience with national-security issues would lead him to speak truth to Trump’s power on the issues of immigration policy, deportations, border walls, Muslim bans, and domestic policing that are within the purview of the Department of Homeland Security. But after the Senate approved Kelly’s nomination, the general lost his voice. He did not speak truth to power. Rather, he reinforced power that would have been better served by blunt questioning and open objection.
In late January 2017, after the rollout of the president’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim countries went horribly awry—with mass protests, immediate legal challenges, judicial orders blocking its implementation, and an international outcry—Kelly was called before Congress to explain the whys and wherefores of the chaos. “This is all on me,” the secretary announced, taking full blame for the failed attempt to impose a religious-test restriction on refugees and visitors that critics correctly labeled as a “Muslim ban.”
That may have sounded like an honorable acceptance of responsibility when no one else in the administration was acting responsibly. But when a member of the cabinet speaks to Congress they are supposed to give a clear and accurate assessment of what has transpired. And no clear or accurate assessment of what transpired with the Muslim ban would place responsibility on John Kelly.
Despite his public apologias for the administration, the fact is that the Muslim ban was never “all on” Kelly. Quite the opposite. The travel ban was, by virtually all accounts, the work of Bannon and Miller. Indeed, according to a Wall Street Journal report based on leaks from inside the administration,
Mr. Kelly was also frustrated at not knowing the details of the travel ban earlier, so he could prepare his agency to respond, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Trump signed the executive order that created the ban late Friday afternoon. Mr. Kelly was only informed of the details that day as he was traveling to Washington, even though he had pressed the White House for days to share with him the final language, the people said.
“The tensions between DHS and the White House have led to uncertainty at the top of an agency charged with keeping Americans safe within US borders. The agency struggled to respond to demonstrations and scenes of confusion at various airports after the immigration order,” explained the Journal article, which noted that, “Even though he was not involved in the order’s preparation, Mr. Kelly was peppered with questions about it. Democrat Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer spoke with Mr Kelly twice at the time to press for details.”
The newspaper suggested that “The problems at DHS reflect a growing unease among government workers with a series of abrupt policy changes dictated by a close-knit group inside the West Wing of the White House.”
Kelly did not acknowledge those tensions when he appeared before the House committee. Indeed, he downplayed press reports about clashes with Bannon and tried to paint a picture of smooth relations that strained credulity. His “I work for one man” response to questions from the committee was another way of saying that frankness was not on the agenda. He is so loyal to Trump that he will not even acknowledge reality.
Kelly was asked in early March about Trump’s allegation that President Barack Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower phones during the 2016 campaign. Trump’s charge was explicit and exceptionally serious. “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” the president tweeted on March 4. He even outlined legal remedies, tweeting: “Is it legal for a sitting President to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!” and “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” Obama, Trump asserted, had undermined “the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
There was one problem with the charge, which the president apparently picked up from right-wing Internet chatter. There was no credible evidence to back it up. None. By all accounts, the alleged wiretapping had not occurred.
Kelly admitted, when he appeared on CNN on the following Monday, that he had nothing to add to the discussion. “I don’t know anything about it,” the top national-security figure told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. But then Kelly went off the rails. “If the President of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons to say it,” the secretary of homeland security announced. “He must have some convincing evidence that took place.… I don’t pretend to even guess as to what the motivation may have been for the previous administration to do something like that.”
When Kelly used the phrase “for the previous administration to do something like that,” he was effectively asserting that the wiretapping had either occurred or, at the least, was likely to have occurred. Yet former director of national intelligence James Clapper was already saying, “There was no wiretap against Trump Tower during the campaign conducted by any part of the National Intelligence Community.” Former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden was saying that there was “no body of evidence” for Trump’s claim that Obama ordered those election-season wiretaps.
What was John Kelly thinking?
The answer is that he was not thinking. He was simply covering for the president—doing his “work for one man”: Donald Trump. Everyone knows that this particular “one man” needs to be challenged and confronted with reality. Unfortunately, John Kelly does not have a record of challenging or confronting the president’s absurd assertions. In fact, Kelly has a record of agreeing with them, and of enabling the president’s inclination toward the combative and obstinate behaviors that have provoked one government shutdown — and could well provoke another.
Lindsey Graham is right when he says of the president, “I don’t think he was well-served by his staff.” But the senator would be even more right if he were to say that the president is not well-served by his chief of staff—and neither is the United States.