Politics

Chief Defender

John Kelly’s handling of Rob Porter shows how similar the chief of staff is to Trump.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks on the tarmac at Greenbrier Valley Airport in Lewisburg, West Virginia, on Feb. 1.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It’s been more than six months since John Kelly joined the White House as President Trump’s second chief of staff. In that time, he has imposed a semblance of order on an otherwise chaotic operation. But he’s also demonstrated that, far from acting as the “adult” in the room, he’s as implicated in the worst impulses of the Trump administration as the president himself.

The most recent and most shocking example is Kelly’s willingness to protect Rob Porter, a senior aide to the president who resigned his position after his two ex-wives came forward with allegations of verbal and physical abuse that included kicking, throwing, and choking them. Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, released graphic pictures of herself with a black eye, which she alleges he gave her.

White House counsel Don McGahn learned about these allegations last spring. John Kelly learned about them in the fall. Both men chose to keep Porter in a senior position in the administration despite the fact that the allegations kept him from obtaining a necessary security clearance. Indeed, Kelly gave Porter even more influence and responsibility—treating serious accusations of domestic abuse as essentially irrelevant. On Tuesday, after the allegations became public, Kelly released a statement calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.” It wasn’t until the photos of Holderness with a black eye were made public that Kelly began to backtrack. A subsequent statement said Kelly was “shocked by the new allegations,” though the White House refused to clarify what was new about them.

The Porter incident puts Kelly’s recent rhetoric in a different light. “When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country,” he said during a news conference last October. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases.”

Even at the time, this was jarring. Kelly was speaking in defense of Donald Trump and against Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, who had criticized the president for disrespecting a military widow. Kelly was lamenting a coarsening American culture, and its particular effect on women, in defense of a man who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women and was recorded bragging about sexual assault. It was an incredible display of cluelessness, made worse by Kelly’s highly misleading response to Wilson that misquoted and mischaracterized her words.

Knowing what we now know about how the chief of staff protected Rob Porter, Kelly’s rhetoric looks downright disingenuous. Women might be sacred to Kelly, but only when they don’t interfere with his political objectives. In that, Kelly feels less like a departure from Trump than a fellow traveler who shares the president’s worst instincts.

The two also seem to share a penchant for nativism and resentment of people of color. In the midst of a national debate over Confederate memorials, Kelly defended Robert E. Lee—a general and key leader in the slaveholders’ rebellion that nearly split the United States in two—as “honorable” and stated his belief that the Civil War was caused by a lack of “compromise.” Those comments hinted at Kelly’s views on race, which he made slightly more explicit just before the Porter incident, when Kelly caught blasted a substantial number of Dreamers—young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children—as “too lazy to get off their asses“ and register with the government.

Analysts treated Kelly’s move to the White House as a major shift. John Kelly “won’t suffer idiots and fools,” read one report. “It’s the end of the chaos,” read another. There’s no question that in his affect and disposition, John Kelly is a vastly different person than Donald Trump. But there’s been no reason to ever think that Kelly holds substantively different views than the president. What we’ve seen instead is how simpatico they are, with Kelly acting as the ego to Trump’s id.

President Trump is reportedly upset with Kelly and the negative publicity around his tenure. Perhaps, like Reince Priebus before him, John Kelly will be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. If he is replaced, it’s important not to see that change as a pivot. Each president is reflected in his staff. John Kelly seems to share Trump’s nativism, resentment, and indifference to women’s well-being. There’s a strong chance his successor will too.