Republicans and Democrats alike have been deluding themselves for some time about White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. They were certain that Kelly was a “grown-up” who understood that the president the American people elected was hobbled — morally, intellectually, temperamentally — and it was Kelly’s job to steer the ship of state away from the rocks. He wouldn’t lie to the American people as President Trump did, these Kelly fans believed.
Recognition is now sinking in that Kelly is not so different than all the other politicians and officials who come in contact with Trump. To serve him requires suspension of integrity, and therefore those who serve become morally corrupted. (The sole exception to this seems to be Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who from day one simply refused to act as Trump’s political flack.) One can hear a palpable sense of sadness after last week’s events, a sense of disillusionment.
After Kelly came out to play defense for Trump over his handling of calls to Gold Star families, smeared Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) and refused to apologize, launched a Trumpian soliloquy about the good old days (when women were “sacred,” but not in the workforce) and elevated the moral stature of service members over mere civilians, it was hard to argue he was anything more than a Trump enabler.
Susan Glasser of Politico appearing on “Face the Nation” observed, “We’re not surprised Donald Trump behaved this way because it’s very consistent with what we’ve seen from President Trump throughout not only his presidency but his campaign. … I think it’s more surprising what we saw in a way from General Kelly. We learned more. One of the things that’s been apparent over the last couple of months that this underscored is that it remains Donald Trump’s White House and not John Kelly’s White House, even if he has imposed more discipline and more of a process, number one.
She added, “We saw that General Kelly, this week, shares more of Donald Trump’s agenda than we realized. … I found General Kelly’s comment to be surprising and even puzzling that he would have brought up in the same commentary about this incident with the Gold Star families this notion that in the good old days women were sacred.” She noted, “A lot of people have talked about the irony of working for a president who has been accused of this kind of behavior.”
Michael Duffy likewise related: “It was a classic damage-control operation by a White House chief of staff. And even though he seemed politically naive with that comment, I thought, I agree with you, he was also — he’s fundamentally a political person.”
Kelly’s fall from grace was swift and senseless. It was all so unnecessary; he need not have gone out to spin for the president.
The verdict on Kelly was remarkably negative, whether it was retired Gen. David Petraeus musing that Kelly was no doubt trying to figure out how to turn down the volume, or longtime GOP political strategist Matthew Dowd. (“The problem is that I have is … does he know who he works for? He talks about the sacredness of Gold Star families and that we have lost that when he works for a guy that attacked Gold Star families and attacked John McCain as a prisoner,” Dowd said. “He talks about the sacredness of women, and he has somebody that said certain things on tape, things that were at best predatory, at best predatory, and has been accused by 12 or 14 different women of behavior. He says we lost the sacredness of religion, and he works for somebody that wanted to ban Muslims.”)
So from adult day-care shift supervisor to enabler in a short week, Kelly sacrificed a good deal of his utility to the president for nothing. In seeking to elevate the military above the rest of us, he ironically undercut his own stature as a guarantor of our democratic norms, as Trump critic Eliot Cohen wrote:
He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four-star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst. … The real sting came at the end. He told those in the audience that he did not look down on them for not having served; rather people like him—again, the 1 percent—merely feel sorry for civilians. But his final shot—“So just think of that”—undercut the previous sentence. The contempt was unmistakable.
Those harboring unrealistic expectations about Kelly have learned once again: None of Trump’s advisers can make up for the deficits of this president; and with a lonely exception of Mattis, all of them look worse for having tried.