Kelly served longer than Reince Priebus as chief of staff, but he turned out to be just as ineffective as his predecessor. Worse, Kelly seemed to share some of President Trump’s noxious views and to mimic Trump’s casual relationship with the truth.
Kelly was no defender of racial tolerance. He presided over the Charlottesville fiasco, the “shithole country” controversy and the effort to kick transgender people out of the military. He continued to defend Trump throughout all these incidents, as well as the child separation fiasco. He made his own ridiculous defense of the Confederacy by deeming Robert E. Lee, who took up arms against the United States (i.e., committed treason), an “honorable man.”
Kelly was no defender of women. He did not quit in protest when Trump endorsed Roy Moore nor recognize (until it was a public scandal) that Rob Porter, credibly accused of spousal abuse, had to go. In his rant following the death of four servicemen in Niger, he declared Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) to be in “a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.”
He was no defender of the truth, as we saw when he falsely accused Wilson of trying to claim credit for naming a federal building after slain FBI agents. Kelly refused to apologize even after it was conclusively shown that he had his facts wrong. In the Rob Porter firing, his own staff told the media that Kelly had not told the truth. He also led a concerted effort to deny that there was any policy to separate migrant children from their parents.
He was no advocate of compassion. His blithe defense of child separations, saying babies and toddlers could be “put into foster care or whatever,” was a stunning exhibition of the indifference to the suffering the administration was inflicting on innocents.
He turned out to share Trump’s back-to-the-1950s brand of reactionary thought. The New York Times reported in October 2017:
This past summer, the Trump administration debated lowering the annual cap on refugees admitted to the United States. Should it stay at 110,000, be cut to 50,000 or fall somewhere in between? John F. Kelly offered his opinion. If it were up to him, he said, the number would be between zero and one. . . .For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss.
In bemoaning that women, religion and military families are no longer “sacred,” he “waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do,” as the Times put it.
In short, Trump’s erratic decision-making, mad tweeting and endemic dishonesty (not to mention bad personnel decisions) continued under Kelly’s tenure. Kelly sacrificed his credibility and stature for . . . well for what?
He didn’t stop the troops from being deployed at the border as an election stunt, didn’t compel Trump to show up to a French cemetery in the rain or Arlington on Veterans Day, and didn’t impress upon White House officials the necessity of avoiding contact with indicted cronies (according to the court filings on Friday). He didn’t dissuade Trump from siding with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community. He didn’t foresee what a disaster the child separation policy would be, nor head off attacks on federal law enforcement, the First Amendment or the Justice Department. Staff turmoil and turnover did not abate.
The Trump administration got worse during Kelly’s time in the White House. It told more lies, had more scandals and made more inexplicable attacks on allies and more international missteps (e.g., defending Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, launching a trade war). Kelly can tell himself things would have been even worse without him (is that possible?) but the record of the White House and his own public missteps put him in the bottom tier of White House chiefs of staff. By staying on, he simply enabled Trump’s antics and gave him a patina of respectability.
I do credit Kelly with one important contribution: He made a strong case for keeping military men out of civilian political positions.