The Real John Kelly

The chief of staff reveals himself to be a dishonest man.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly
White House chief of staff John Kelly at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, talks a lot about integrity. As a retired general and as a father who lost his son in Afghanistan, Kelly has a record of service and honor. But you can’t really judge a man’s character until you see his conduct directly. What we’re seeing now from Kelly is a continuing effort to smear a Democratic congresswoman, in the face of conclusive contrary evidence. Whatever else Kelly may be, he is not an honest man.

On Oct. 19, from the White House podium, Kelly accused Rep. Frederica Wilson of giving a self-serving speech at the April 2015 dedication of an FBI field office in Miami:

A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there, in all of that, and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned.

Within 24 hours, all of this was debunked. Video of the speech showed that Wilson had devoted most of her remarks to praising law enforcement officers. She had thanked her Republican colleagues. She had said nothing about a phone call with Obama or about securing the money for the building, which would have been exposed immediately as a ridiculous lie, since the building was funded before she came to Congress. Press reports explained all of this. They also pointed out that the facility cost $194 million, not $20 million.

The next day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who seemed to have consulted Kelly in the interim, revised his story. She claimed that Wilson “also had quite a few comments that day that weren’t part of that speech, and weren’t part of that video, that were also witnessed by many people that were there.” When reporters pressed for details, Sanders replied: “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”

For the next 10 days, Kelly said nothing. But yesterday, in an interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, he broke his silence. “I stand by my comments,” he said. Brushing aside the video, Kelly maintained that Wilson had said what he alleged, but off camera. “I’ll go back and talk about before her comments [in the recorded speech] and at the reception afterwards,” he said. Kelly also claimed to have witnesses. “A number of people that were there” at the dedication ceremony had “volunteered to come forward” to vouch for his story, he told Ingraham. “They saw her both before and after her official comments. … These are FBI agents, former FBI agents that were there.”

This response tells us several things about Kelly. First, he refuses to retract statements that are indisputably false. In his remarks at the podium, he accused Wilson of claiming that she had secured the money for the building. That’s literally impossible. He also got the building’s cost wrong by a factor of nearly 10, which tells you, at a minimum, that his memory is bad or that he tells stories without fussing about facts.

Second, Kelly publicly invokes unspecified allegations by anonymous witnesses. If he has witnesses, he should present them. If he won’t put them on the record—or at least specify where and when they claim Wilson made the statements he attributes to her, so that reporters can check out their stories—then he’s just compounding his smear. There’s nothing honorable or trustworthy about claiming to have secret evidence. And it’s particularly damning that Kelly has retreated to unfalsifiable allegations after his falsifiable allegations were discredited.

In his interview with Ingraham, Kelly pretends he’s doing Wilson a favor by asking his anonymous witnesses not to come forward. “We should let go” of the dispute, he says, feigning mercy and decency. No, let’s not. On Oct. 20, the Miami Herald reported that Wayne Messam, a mayor who attended the 2015 ceremony, “said Wilson did not engage in any grandstanding either on or off camera.” Kelly isn’t keeping his talk of witnesses, times, and places vague to protect Wilson. He’s keeping it vague to protect himself.

If you’re not sure whether to believe Kelly or Wilson, consider another incident that’s in dispute between them. Wilson, who was with the family of a fallen Green Beret when Trump called them on Oct. 17, says Trump told the widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” Trump says Wilson “totally fabricated” that story. The widow and the fallen soldier’s aunt insist Wilson’s account is true. In an ABC News interview on Oct. 23, the widow asked: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”

In Monday’s interview, Ingraham invited Kelly, who had heard the call from Trump’s end, to clarify the record. Ingraham pointed out that the widow “said that what Frederica Wilson said was actually right. She basically corroborated what the congresswoman recounted about the conversation.” Kelly could have withdrawn the charge of fabrication and acknowledged that the soldier’s widow and aunt were speaking the truth. Instead, he said of the widow: “She has every right to say what she wants to say.”

In the days ahead, you’ll hear a lot about Kelly’s character. On the left, you’ll hear that he’s a racist. On the right, you’ll hear that he’s a patriot. Some of these arguments hinge on interpretation or speculation about his motives. But this dispute doesn’t. Either Kelly told the truth about Wilson, or he didn’t. The evidence says he didn’t. Instead of admitting error, he’s repeating his smears and trying to make his story impossible to check. If anyone else behaved this way, you’d call that person a liar and a coward. That, four stars or not, is what John Kelly is.