Last July, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly rode to the rescue of Donald Trump, entering his White House as a valiant chief of staff amid the chaos and carnage of Anthony Scaramucci’s short tenure and the departures of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus. At that time, and for a short while thereafter, many hoped that Kelly would bring order, discipline, and maturity to a White House visibly lacking all three.
Six months in, and especially after this week, Kelly’s armor is no longer so bright and shining. In July I wrote that he had four missions: to focus Trump more, to bring order to a dysfunctional White House, to keep the White House operating amid the special counsel’s investigation, and to reinvent himself as a savvy political operator who can complement and support Trump. Kelly has failed at each of these, but particularly the last one. In a broad array of political fights, Kelly has worsened matters more than he has improved them. And he has shown devastatingly poor judgment, too, as in the case of White House staff secretary Rob Porter, whom Kelly kept on the job after learning of his domestic violence history and later defended with unqualified praise.
Leading up to this week’s scandal were three other political episodes that illustrate the extent of Kelly’s unsuitability for the role of chief of staff. The first occurred after the violent protests in Charlottesville which resulted in the deaths of one anti-Nazi protester and two Virginia state troopers. At that moment, Kelly had the opportunity to steer Trump toward responsible rhetoric, perhaps echoing the military’s attitudes toward diversity and inclusion. Kelly did not do so. Indeed, he later tacked in the opposite direction, calling Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “an honorable man” and blaming the Civil War on “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
That, ironically, would form the backdrop for another political episode, in which Kelly appears to have labored mightily behind the scenes to delay, block, or derail a compromise between Trump and Democratic leaders such as Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. This followed Kelly’s tour de force as secretary of homeland security, in which he toughened immigration enforcement by ordering arrests at courthouses and churches, and told Congress to pass immigration reform or “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.” In meeting after meeting, Kelly played the role of heavy to Trump’s lightweight compromiser. It now appears that Kelly’s legislative outreach helped stiffen Republican opposition to any immigration bargaining and probably contributed to last month’s brief government shutdown. In the following weeks, Kelly has escalated his divisive rhetoric on immigration, saying some immigrants in legal jeopardy may have been “too afraid” or “too lazy” to apply for government permission to stay.
A third episode occurred last October when Kelly should have been at his finest: counseling the president on how to comfort the bereaved families of four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers killed in Niger. Kelly’s son died in combat in Afghanistan, and he has comforted scores (if not hundreds) of military families who have faced similar circumstances. And yet, at a moment when he could have brought all his military experience to bear, he and Trump fumbled, inflaming the grief of one soldier’s wife. Kelly then made matters worse by giving an awkward press conference that oscillated between excoriating the press and lamenting the nation’s civil-military divide. He then went on the offensive, falsely attacking a congresswoman who had brought attention to the matter and then refusing to apologize to her.
Which brings us to the fourth and most recent episode: Kelly’s shielding of Rob Porter, an eminently qualified Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar who also abused two of his ex-wives (brutally beating one) before joining Trump’s White House. Kelly knew these facts about Porter’s past, thanks to the government’s thorough background investigation which ultimately led to Porter being denied a security clearance. By the book, Kelly probably should have thanked Porter for his service at that point because it’s near-impossible to be White House staff secretary without the highest clearances to process all the sensitive information passing through the Oval Office. Kelly didn’t do that. Instead, he wrapped Porter in a protective embrace, making him a key ally and praising him for his work bringing order to the White House. And when news of Porter’s past broke this week, Kelly went on the record to defend him as “a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him.”
And there are other failures outside of those four episodes. Kelly, as a former DHS secretary and commander of U.S. Southern Command, could have helped the Trump White House respond better to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico; he did not. Kelly could have even attempted to wrestle Trump’s smartphone away and discipline his usage of Twitter; he has not.
Americans admire generals and admirals like Kelly because they perceive them to be loyal to the country’s interests above their own interests, to be forthright and trustworthy. Beyond that, senior military leaders hold a certain mystique: They serve when not all do, they’ve thrived under adverse circumstances like combat, and they’ve been selected by the military as the best of the best. Trump has gravitated toward generals like Kelly for these reasons, and because their stratospheric levels of public admiration are the exact opposite of his sagging political fortunes.
However, just because generals can lead well on the battlefield does not mean they can (or always will) succeed in the political swamps of Washington, let alone the toxic environment of the Trump White House. For every senior officer like Colin Powell or Brent Scowcroft that succeeded as a White House aide, there is a Michael Flynn or Alexander Haig who crashed and burned. The role of White House chief of staff may be the toughest in government; even the best ones frequently burn out after a couple of years. Kelly had the right stuff to succeed within the tight-knit, battle-focused world of the Marine Corps, but his first six months as Trump’s chief of staff have been disastrous, and it may be time for Kelly to ride off into the sunset.