More than any recent resident of the White House, President Trump has used the military and “my generals,” as he often calls them, as a shield against criticism from political rivals.
And no general in recent weeks has been a more ardent or harder-edged defender of the president than John F. Kelly, a retired Marine four-star general and the White House chief of staff. But the White House got a lesson in the downsides of relying on generals in times of political crisis when Kelly in a Monday interview suggested that an inability to “compromise” had caused the Civil War.
His remarks drew an immediate backlash in Washington and among many historians, who noted that the North spent decades reaching compromises with the South over slavery. The comments also revived a chorus of criticism that began two weeks ago, when Kelly lamented that nothing in the United States was “sacred” anymore and denigrated a Florida congresswoman by misstating her remarks at a building dedication in honor of two slain FBI agents.
“He violated the first basic rule of the chief of staff, which is not to make yourself the news of the day,” said former defense secretary Leon E. Panetta, who worked with Kelly in the Pentagon and also served as White House chief of staff. “I have no idea what he was trying to say because history is not on his side.”
Kelly — Trump's first homeland security secretary — was brought to the White House over the summer in an attempt to impose order on a chaotic policy process and feuding staff and has received generally high marks. He bolted shut the open door to the Oval Office and banished ideologues such as former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. But Kelly has struggled with the more political aspects of his job and at times has seemed to be a detriment to a White House reeling from several self-inflicted wounds.
Kelly's public stumbles highlight the downsides of relying heavily on current and retired military brass to fill political jobs traditionally filled by civilians. In addition to Kelly, Trump has turned to an active-duty three-star general, H.R. McMaster, to act as his national security adviser and a retired Marine four-star general, Jim Mattis, to serve as his defense secretary. The White House's national security staff, meanwhile, is made up of an unusually large number of current and former military officers.
Kelly, though, has been pressed into a far more political role than the other top brass. Those who served with him in the Pentagon describe a general who was often maddened by politics and viewed members of Congress as self-serving. “He was pretty cynical and thought that a lot of politicians were full of hot air,” said Derek Chollet, a former top official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration who worked with Kelly. “It was always a puzzle how this was going to work out. Trump is not a process guy. And this position is all about politics.”
Said Panetta: “John is a great Marine . . . but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”
So far, the White House and Trump, who has a far different take on political discourse from his predecessors, are backing Kelly.
“The media continue to want to make this and push that this is somehow a racially charged and divided White House,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at Tuesday’s media briefing, saying that Kelly’s Civil War comments had been taken out of context in a manner that was “absurd and disgraceful.”
One former White House adviser, who still works in government and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said Kelly’s higher public profile and more overtly political stance have been welcomed by Trump and taken as marks of success. There is a “bunker mentality” around the president, this person said, and Kelly is seen as “shooting out.”
The view that Kelly is being helpful to Trump is not universal, however. Kelly is seen by some in the West Wing as violating his own advice that those who serve the president should keep a low profile and avoid drama.
As president, Trump has often prioritized loyalty to him and his administration, and Kelly has repeatedly delivered.
After Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said Trump behaved insensitively during a condolence call with the widow of a U.S. soldier slain in Niger, Kelly — whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan — leapt immediately to the president’s defense.
He movingly described the path that the bodies of dead soldiers and Marines take as they make their way home from overseas battlefields and described the sacrifices that military families make for the country. He then carried his defense a step further by slamming Wilson, a family friend, for listening in on the call and criticizing the president.
Kelly called her an “empty barrel” and relayed an unflattering story about her conduct at the building dedication, which a videotape later suggested was incorrect. In an interview aired Monday night with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Kelly declined to apologize for those remarks.
Asked to weigh in on a move by a Virginia church to remove plaques that honored Gen. Robert E. Lee and George Washington, he described the Confederate general as an “honorable man.”
“He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country,” Kelly told Fox.
To some former military officers, Kelly’s remarks were misguided. “His comments excusing Robert E. Lee’s traitorous conduct were frankly appalling,” said retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, a well-known military officer who co-authored the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine. Nagl said Kelly is on his way to “becoming a creature of the president. . . . It’s unfortunate.”
Other military officials described Kelly’s remarks as the product of a somewhat cloistered view of the conflict inculcated in military officers but not necessarily shared by the broader public. Lee, for example, is still among the most revered graduates at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where his name graces roads, buildings, barracks and even the school’s award for excellence in mathematics.
His place of honor reflects a view, still dominant among the military, that both sides of the war were populated with honorable men, said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “They were all Americans,” Barno said. “When I heard Kelly talk, I heard a view that I think is relatively common in the U.S. military.”
The other controversial aspect of Kelly’s recent remarks has been his frustration, bordering on contempt, for the country he is serving. Kelly picked up that theme again in his Tuesday interview in which he described an America that “seems to be broken now and [turning] against itself.”
Barno described the view as very common among those who have led a diverse cross-section of the country in combat and then return home to a country that seems more divided along partisan lines than ever. “I don’t fault him entirely,” Barno said. “I know where he comes from.”
Other former colleagues, though, were more pained by the former Marine's public turn.
"Donald Trump has an unblemished record of making everyone around him look a little worse, and I don't think John Kelly is immune to that," said Chollet, the former Obama Pentagon official.
A retired officer, who served alongside Kelly in the Pentagon, offered a similar view.
"It breaks my heart that it got to this," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak frankly. "I worry about him since he took the job."
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.