It’s not clear what, precisely, Trump was referencing in bringing up Kelly’s supposed tendency to spill secrets. But it is clear that Trump was enraged because of this piece in the Atlantic, which reported on a talk that Kelly gave, in which he vividly demonstrated why Trump is unfit for the presidency.
In that talk, Kelly criticized Trump’s hate-rhetoric about immigrants and his handling of North Korea. Most importantly, he defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council official who powerfully testified against Trump’s corrupt call pressuring Ukraine to do his political bidding, as part of his extortion scheme. Trump has since ousted Vindman as punishment.
There’s been a lot of chatter about this Kelly episode, yet it seems to have largely avoided the most important point: Trump’s former chief of staff fully validated the case against Trump that got him impeached, in a way that has real significance, coming from someone who worked alongside Trump inside the White House for nearly two years.
Indeed, Kelly’s defense of Vindman is a big deal:
Although Trump has long insisted that his call to Zelensky was “perfect,” Kelly made clear that Trump indeed conditioned military aid on Zelensky’s help digging up dirt on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.That amounted to a momentous change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine — one that Vindman was right to flag, because other federal agencies needed to know about the shift, Kelly said.“Through the Obama administration up until that phone call, the policy of the U.S. was militarily to support Ukraine in their defensive fight against … the Russians,” Kelly said. “And so, when the president said that continued support would be based on X, that essentially changed. And that’s what that guy [Vindman] was most interested in.”When Vindman heard the president tell Zelensky he wanted to see the Biden family investigated, that was tantamount to hearing “an illegal order,” Kelly said. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss.’”
Note that Kelly is flatly agreeing that Trump conditioned official acts — in particular, hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine — on getting the Ukrainian president to carry out his dirty political deeds, and implicitly agreeing that U.S. policy was subverted to this end, in a way that abandoned an ally at a moment of extreme vulnerability.
What’s more, Kelly isn’t merely defending Vindman by claiming Trump shouldn’t have ousted him out of revenge, which is an easy position to take. Kelly also is standing by Vindman’s decision to report what he heard, in defiance of the president, on the grounds that he had witnessed wrongdoing.
Trump, of course, has entirely denied this account in every conceivable way, claiming his conduct in the Ukraine extortion scheme was entirely above reproach and was only about protecting the American taxpayer from sinking money into a corrupt country. That’s of course ludicrous, as Kelly demonstrated.
Kelly might not have been there at the time. But this still matters. Here we have a man who worked alongside Trump for nearly two years casually declaring that of course the most damning account of Trump’s corruption is obviously the correct one — it makes perfect sense to his longtime adviser, who saw him up close daily — and of course all the people around him who grew alarmed enough to report that corruption were absolutely right to do so.
What’s more, in this context, Trump’s fury at Kelly becomes more significant. Trump raged at Kelly for showing disloyalty — for failing to praise him sufficiently and for spilling secrets. This is a window into what Trump expects from those who work for him: Not only are they supposed to carry out his corrupt directives — recall that Trump ordered homeland security and border officials to break the law — but they are also adamantly not supposed to rat out his corruption.
This is the Trump family ethic. As Donald Trump Jr. made clear after Vindman’s ouster, that ethic is that anyone who is prepared to rat out the boss’s corruption should have been fired a long time ago, anyway:
Obviously Kelly failed our country in all kinds of ways, and obviously there’s a heavily self-serving dimension to him suddenly speaking about this so belatedly. But nonetheless, having Trump’s own chief of staff validate the entire narrative that got Trump impeached — for which Senate Republicans acquitted Trump only after closing their ears to any further witness testimony to it — is not nothing.
It will be heard by plenty of independents across the country — and, hopefully, by many still inside the bureaucracy as well.