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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly War Stories

The Thin Skin of John Kelly

The chief of staff’s military background has helped him impose order on a chaotic White House. But his aversion to criticism from civilians makes him ill-suited for democratic politics.

A week has passed since White House chief of staff John Kelly’s disastrous press conference, where he made excuses for his insensitive boss, insulted a congresswoman, lied about her record, and capped off the event by heaving contempt on Americans who haven’t served in the armed forces.

And so another erstwhile figure of respect—a retired four-star Marine general touted as one of the “grown-ups” who have kept our mercurial president from plunging the country into chaos—was dragged into the Trumpland swamp. But in Kelly’s case, it didn’t take much dragging to get him there.

Kelly has done some commendable things on the job since succeeding the hapless Reince Priebus in late July. He managed to oust Steve Bannon and his white-nationalist sidekick, Sebastian Gorka, from the White House. He provided cover for National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to rid the National Security Council staff of a few junior ideologues left over from the brief reign of Michael Flynn. He has blocked Trump from meeting with superhawk John Bolton, a former (and perhaps future) senior official wannabe. For these deeds alone, Kelly deserves the thanks of a bedraggled nation.

So how to explain his recent lapse? Or was it a lapse? It may be useful to recall the six months before Kelly came to the White House, when he served as Trump’s secretary of homeland security. It was a job for which he seemed ideally suited, having just served for four years as head of U.S. Southern Command, which deals with border security, counternarcotics, and counterterrorism He sailed through his Senate confirmation hearings with trumpets blaring. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for whom Kelly had served as senior military adviser, introduced him to the committee as “a man of great moral authority” that he’d trust with his life. Under questioning, the nominee pledged to speak “truth to power” and disagreed with several of Trump’s high-profile positions. A wall on the Mexican border, he said, would not protect us from drug traffickers. Most illegal immigrants come here not to rape and kill (as Trump had charged during the campaign) but for “economic opportunity and to escape violence.” Asked about the idea of detaining them without trial, he replied, “I’m pretty committed to the Constitution.”

Yet, once installed in power, Kelly enforced Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants—including children who had spent nearly all their lives in America—with unusual gusto. When members of Congress criticized his department for its intensity, Kelly snapped back. “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” he said in a speech at George Washington University in April. “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the frontlines.”

Many were taken aback that a Cabinet secretary—especially one ingrained in a military culture with respect for civilian control—would react so crudely to congressional concerns or demand unquestioning fealty to his agents in the field. Kelly went on in this vein, complaining that his agents had too long been “disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.”

A subsequent meeting on Capitol Hill with the critics he’d lambasted only sharpened the tensions. “This is not boot camp,” Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, said afterward. The critics in the room weren’t “newly inducted members of the Marine Corps” but rather “experienced lawmakers who understood the law.” (And, in fact, the courts would soon uphold lawmakers’ concerns about Trump’s directives and Kelly’s actions.)

Kelly’s reaction to criticism at Homeland Security was a preview, now largely forgotten, of his Oct. 19 appearance in the White House press room—a glimpse of the mentality that shaped his sharp words on both occasions.

Much has been written about the cultural divide between civilians and the military in modern America—an inevitable product of our all-volunteer armed forces, intensified by the wars that those forces, less than 1 percent of the population, which have been fighting nonstop for the past 16 years while the other 99 percent go about their normal lives on the other side of the world.

Kelly is right that those of us basking in peace “have no idea what it means to serve,” and those who do serve on the frontlines deserve our thanks and respect. But neither they nor their commanders deserve our uncritical obeisance. In his George Washington speech last spring and in his White House appearance last week, Kelly seemed to suggest that they do.

At the press conference, Kelly said that the country’s best 1 percent were those buried in military cemeteries, and when he took questions, he did so only from reporters who knew Gold Star families, as if those who didn’t were unworthy of addressing the subject. “We don’t look down upon those of you that haven’t served,” he said. Rather, “we’re a little bit sorry because you’ll never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our servicemen and women do”—as if other modes of joy or service make you second-class citizens.

Retired Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran special forces officer of 30 years and a noted scholar of civil-military relations, was moved by Kelly’s remarks to write a piece for Foreign Policy. Killebrew remembered the wise words of another gruff colonel when he entered the Army:

So you want to be a career soldier? Good for you. But remember that the longer you stay in uniform, the less you will really understand about the country you protect. Democracy is the antithesis of the military life; it’s chaotic, dishonest, disorganized, and at the same time glorious, exhilarating and free—which you are not.
After a while, if you stay in, you’ll be tempted to say, “Look, you civilians, we’ve got a better way. We’re better organized. We’re patriotic, and we know what it is to sacrifice. Be like us.” And you’ll be dead wrong, son. If you’re a career soldier, you may defend democracy, but you won’t understand it or be part of it. What’s more, you’ll always be a stranger to your own society. That’s the sacrifice you’ll be making.

Kelly, a retired general, has now been thrust in the position of serving in the top political echelon of this democracy—yet still seems not to understand it. During his press conference, he insulted Rep.
Frederica Wilson, the Florida Democrat who criticized Trump for his insensitive phone call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, as an “empty barrel.” He then told a story about a self-serving speech that she gave at the dedication of an FBI building—a story that a video of the speech reveals to be completely false. When a reporter asked White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the contradiction, Sanders said it was “highly inappropriate” to question a four-star general.

The telling thing is that Kelly has neither apologized to Wilson for his mistake nor dissociated himself from Sanders’ poor understanding of American democracy. Other generals have spoken up on the latter score, notably retired Gen. David Petraeus, who said on ABC on Sunday, “We in uniform protect the rights of others to criticize us.”

Kelly has suffered more than many officers of his rank. His son, Robert, a Marine second lieutenant, died in battle in Afghanistan, making Gen. Kelly—then a two-star general and just returned from command posts in Iraq—the highest-ranking American officer to lose a son in the wars we’re still fighting. He no doubt rankles at any attempt to politicize wartime casualties—and whatever else might be said about Wilson, she was clearly attempting that.

Yet, in his incessant tweets about the controversy over the next few days, Trump was politicizing them too. One wonders how much, beneath his public defenses of the president, Kelly might hold Trump in contempt as well. Many have noted his squirms and head pinches during some of Trump’s most embarrassing statements. One passage in Kelly’s White House remarks also raised questions about his true feelings.

The moment came right after he mentioned the sanctity of a fallen soldier: “You know,” Kelly said, “when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. … Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”

What was Kelly talking about? Women? The Harvey Weinstein scandal was front-page news—but, given the setting of his comments, it was hard not to think of the sexual harassment charges against President Trump. The respect for Gold Star families, tarnished at the political conventions? This could only be a reference to the Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son died in Iraq and who were vilified by Republicans after they criticized Trump at the Democratic Convention.

Was Kelly taking a subtle lunge at the president, as if to say, “Yes, I’m standing up here on his behalf, as I must, but I’m not entirely in his corner”? Was the critique subconscious? Or were his remarks merely random? It’s hard to say and will remain so until the spate of memoirs and other insider accounts spill forth from publishers high and low after this sordid era has passed. In the meantime, everyone who wades in the pond can’t help but come up dripping with muck.

Top image: White House chief of staff John Kelly waits while Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and President Donald Trump make statement before a meeting in the Oval Office on Oct. 19. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

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