The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s not staff a White House with generals ever again

Wilson says Kelly ‘lied’ about her 2015 comments. Now there's video of the event. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

In defending his boss, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly gratuitously attacked Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), derisively referred to her as being like “empty barrels,” misrepresented her conduct at a dedication of an FBI building and, even when film of the event showed his characterization to be utterly false, did not apologize. Kelly deemed it appropriate to restrict questions to reporters with a connection to a Gold Star family, as if one group of Americans (and their readers and viewers) is more worthy than another. However, when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders warned reporters not to criticize Kelly (or his slander of Wilson), the administration took on the creepy aura of a military junta.

The Post reported:

Instead of backing down, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders piled on Friday and said Kelly was justified in accusing the lawmaker of grandstanding, despite erring on the facts. “As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle,” Sanders said of Wilson, an African American who is known for wearing brightly colored cowboy hats.
Sanders also attempted to shift the debate away from Kelly’s inaccuracies to instead focus on his personal integrity.
“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” she said.

No one in service of our country is beyond reproach or immune from criticism. Generals get criticized and every day must answer to politicians, who in turn are responsible to the public. (Trump, by the way, routinely demeaned generals — whom he claimed had been “reduced to rubble” — in the presidential campaign.) We don’t believe in the divine right of kings or the infallibility of military or civilian leaders. And Kelly, now in a civilian role, certainly should not be permitted to deploy his military service record, no matter how admirable that may have been, to deflect criticism and shut up the press.

Kelly and Trump seem to actually have a lot in common. They both display disdain for the press and contempt for critics. Kelly rails at treatment of (“sacred”) women but enthusiastically serves a president who serially insults and abuses women. Rather than address criticism, Kelly and Trump both like to pull rank, treat critics as their lessers and react indignantly when anyone questions their motives.

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CNN’s Jake Tapper had it exactly right in his appearance Friday afternoon. “When a reporter pointed out just minutes ago that Kelly had gotten his facts wrong about this speech, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said one of the most shocking things I’ve ever heard from that podium — she suggested that journalists cannot question generals,” he said. “That’s not how we do it here in the United States.” But then, Trump has made destruction of democratic values and institutions a feature of his presidency.

The press puts out “fake” news. The special prosecutor is on a witch hunt. The courts have no power to second-guess the president on the travel ban. It’s all part of Trump’s imperiousness and determination to delegitimize all independent sources of information and criticism. Kelly, rather than restrain these authoritarian impulses, fuels them.

Conventional wisdom has been telling us that Kelly has created a more disciplined and effective White House. He’s supposed to be taking his shifts for supervision of an erratic, irrational president. I don’t see it.

Since Kelly’s arrival, Trump has ignited explosive cultural confrontations, failed again to repeal Obamacare and looked thoroughly hapless in his inability to articulate or stick to any position for more than an hour or so. Trump blusters and threatens North Korea; he alarms European allies by threatening to trash the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump under Kelly’s “day care” still has not filled a slew of top-level posts. Trump is not becoming more competent, more focused, more civil or more respectful of others under Kelly’s tutelage. In fact, he’s getting worse on all four counts. Kelly’s eagerness to defend the president’s unconscionable behavior and Kelly’s own lack of respect for civilian politicians simply feed Trump’s demons.

Kelly should be replaced by someone who actually understands democratic governance and can deliver bad news and honest criticism to the president. Going forward, Congress needs to stomp out creeping military authoritarianism. Congress should start by barring generals from acting in civilian capacities in the White House.