The former general was meant to bring military discipline but his role in the Rob Porter case has raised new questions about his judgment
David Smith in Washington
Pressure on White House chief of staff John Kelly was intensifying on Saturday after a series of missteps, most notably his defence of a senior official accused of domestic violence.
Ominously Donald Trump has been grumbling about Kelly’s performance and weighing up possible replacements, according to media reports.
Reports in the New York Times suggested that Kelly told staff on Friday he was willing to resign over his mishandling of the domestic violence allegations that led to staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation, and that simultaneously Trump was now considering Mick Mulvaney, currently White House budget director and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as a possible successor. But a third chief of staff in just over a year, along with the rapid turnover of other officials, would only fuel perceptions of mismanagement.
Observers used to hope that John Kelly would be able to tame Donald Trump. Now, the joke goes, they are hoping Donald Trump will be able to tame John Kelly.
“He’s really been a failure,” said Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. “There were high expectations that, with such gravitas and authority, he would be the grownup in the room, smoothing the rough edges off the would-be authoritarian Trump. It’s been the opposite: Kelly has reinforced Trump’s worst instincts. Trump is a human wrecking ball and Kelly is his biggest enabler.”
It is a startling decline in fortunes for the retired four-star marine corps general, who took over from Reince Priebus last July with an apparent brief to instil military discipline in a chaotic White House. Trump heaped praise on him for doing a “spectacular job” as homeland security secretary, where he led a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and said Kelly was a “true star” of his administration.
Kelly last year became only the second general to become chief of staff, following Al Haig, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The 67-year-old, from an Irish Catholic family in Boston, enlisted in the marines in 1970. His son Robert, a first lieutenant in the marines, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly stepped down in 2016 from US southern command, where he oversaw US military activities including the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which he staunchly supports.
As chief of staff he has proved amenable and accessible to reporters, speaking casually off the record at lighthearted events such as the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning and Christmas reception, where he made clear his lack of understanding of Twitter. He cut a sympathetic figure when, as his boss ruminated on a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and claimed there was blame “on both sides”, Kelly stared gloomily at the floor as if channeling a nation’s dismay.
But as public debate raged over civil war statues, Kelly expressed some troubling views of his own.
He described Confederate general Robert E Lee as “an honorable man” and blamed the conflict on “the lack of an ability to compromise” rather than slavery, contending that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand”.
There was worse to come. In October, Kelly made a rare appearance at the White House press briefing and declared that he would only take questions from reporters who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a gold star family. Some critics suggested it had the whiff of a military junta.
Kelly also lambasted Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who is African American, for listening in on Trump’s call to the widow of a soldier killed in an ambush in Niger. The chief of staff said the congresswoman was speaking “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise” and falsely accused her of claiming credit for winning funding for a new FBI building in Miami at its 2015 christening.
Kelly angered Trump last month when he appeared to suggest that the president was backing away from his promise for a border wall.
Then came his worst week yet. The chief of staff fought for Porter, said to be his closest aide, to keep his job as White House staff secretary despite allegations of physical assault from two ex-wives. Porter has denied the claims and on Friday Trump praised him for doing “a very good job”. A second White House aide, speechwriter David Sorensen, was forced to resign amid similar accusations, which he denied, on Friday night.
At first, Kelly issued a full-throated defence of Porter as a “a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional”. Hours later, when a photo was published showing one of the women with a black eye, Kelly conceded he was “shocked” by the allegations but continued to stand by him. By Wednesday night, however, Porter was gone, and media reports suggested that Kelly had known since last autumn there were allegations against him from his ex-wives. Kelly faced the questions normally reserved for presidents in strife: what did he know and when did he know it?
Whipple reflected: “A month ago, you might have said at least he runs a tight ship, but now that’s in doubt. The Rob Porter debacle is the latest example. He’s now a contender for one of the least effective chiefs in modern history.”
Mainstream Republicans expressed concern. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “He tries to put the best foot forward on these things but, as the Porter situation illustrates, it is fraught with all sorts of perils. He has to stop and ask himself, when he was commanding his troops and information like this became available about one of them, what would he do? I don’t think he would say that person was a great guy.”
Kelly’s willingness to speak out breaks from past chiefs of staff and could backfire. Steele added: “The chief of staff should not be in a position where he’s expressing his opinion on anything. He should be expressing what the president wants. That at least makes it easy for him to deal with some of this.”
Indeed, Kelly may have thought he was expressing the president’s thoughts on Tuesday when he claimed that some immigrants are “too lazy to get off their asses” to register for government protections. But it was the kind of language that out-Trumped Trump himself.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist, said the comment was “trafficking in the worst kind of racist stereotypes. He was supposed to be the person who was going to keep Trump from saying things like that; instead he’s saying them himself. He was supposed to bring a lot of Kelly to Trump; instead Trump has brought a lot of Trump to Kelly.”
Shrum, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, added: “He went into this job with a pretty strong reputation but he’ll leave it with a somewhat bruised reputation. Instead of eliminating the chaos he just seems to have created a latticework around it. Let me put it this way: he’s no Jim Baker,” a reference to a chief of staff who served under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.
Others suggest that Kelly’s impact has been mixed. Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington and former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, said: “On a procedural, managerial level, it’s clear he’s brought a level of regularity and predictability to the routine of the White House. He’s reduced the free-form access to the president that held for the first months of the administration. That’s important, especially when the president is so hyper-reactive.
“On the minus side, I think it’s clear that General Kelly has been something less than the neutral honest broker that a lot of people expected or hoped he would be. He’s a man with views of his own, many of which mesh with the president’s. On a number of occasions he’s put his thumbs on the scale in way that some applaud and others deplore.
“When it comes to immigration, General Kelly has not been a check and a balance against the president’s extreme tendencies.”