It should be obvious from the get go that White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s services and his sacrifices, those that got him his four stars, are some of the most heroic and honorable things that anyone has done for our country. As such, when people talk of Kelly, those monikers would be used in a way that convey a sense of steadiness, a sense of stability, and a sense of practicality. He was and is supposed to be one of the “adults” in the administration, part of the cadre of cabinet and executive officials that are supposed to put a lid on the more erratic behaviors of the president, as evidenced by his confirmation vote of 88-11 (which was is significantly better than the senate votes of some of Trump’s other top cabinet officials). John Kelly was supposed to not be one of Trump’s ideological goons, in the likes of Stephen Miller or Jeff Sessions, he was just supposed to be someone who was going to get the job done. In consistently describing Kelly as a Four Star general, while obviously pertinent when naming a military official, he was effectively given a Teflon shield, making him immune from serious criticism due to his previous service.
This piece is not about Rob Porter, a White House staff secretary who was an important part of the Kelly’s administrative team whose past of domestic abuse may or not have been known to Kelly before it was published in the press. Rather, this piece is about Kelly’s reputation before his current predicament. He embodied the callousness and ideological stubbornness that characterized so many members of the Trump Administration. From his stint at the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly made it clear that he shared in Trump’s goals. Part of the reason Kelly had been picked for the job was his more hawkish immigration views. There was salve on the public consciousness when Kelly did say that there wouldn’t be a wall from “sea to shining sea,” in what was seen as a rebuke of the rhetoric and more insane policy of Trump himself. However, during his time at the Department, Kelly carried out Trump’s anti-immigration agenda in force, often going unnoticed due to the controversial moments and scandals of the early Trump administration. According to the New Yorker, “Kelly eliminated guidelines that governed federal immigration agents’ work; vastly expanded the categories of immigrants being targeted for deportation; threatened to abandon the Obama-era program that grants legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children; and has even broached the idea of splitting up mothers and children at the border to “deter” people from coming to the U.S. Under Kelly, immigration arrests in the U.S. increased by forty percent and D.H.S…” Even looking beyond his more covert actions as DHS Secretary, Kelly was willing to stay with the administration, throughout his stint at DHS and Chief of Staff, even after numerous morally and ethically dubious comments from Trump, including his attacks on the press, his remarks after Charlottesville, his attack on NFL players, his ban of transgender troops from the military, and more.
Since taking over as Chief of Staff, Kelly has had quite a few of his own personal failings. He has reportedly been part of the administration’s more hardline demands in relation to forming a deal over DACA, he encouraged the acting Secretary of Homeland Security to end the temporary protected status for 57,000 Hondurans in the United States, and has said that some of the potential undocumented immigrants who could have signed up for DACA protection “…should have probably gotten off the couch and signed up.” However, one of the most revealing events of Kelly’s tenure was his feud with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL). After the congresswoman accused Trump of being not sensitive enough on a call with the widow of one of the soldiers who died after an attack by ISIS affiliates in Niger, Kelly preceded to falsely accuse Wilson of taking credit for securing funding for a building dedicated to slain FBI members. When it turned out that that wasn’t true, not only did general Kelly refuse to apologize but White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said it was “highly inappropriate” to debate him on his version of what happened.
Sanders may have meant that Kelly’ military experience gave him more credibility to judge matters relating to the military, but for me she confirmed that Kelly is being held to an unfairly low standard. Since his beginning, Kelly was heralded as being distinct from the ideological Bannons or the destructive Pruitts. He was supposed to be above the rabble that characterized many of the other aspects of Trump’s administration. And the way the media talked about him, referencing his rank, made it seem as such. With Sanders’s comments, John Kelly’s stature were used, intentionally or not, as a veneer that kept him above the reproach that befell so many other Trump administrative officials. But Kelly did not get dragged down into the character shattering swamp that is the Trump administration, as many commentators like to put it. He has always been a creature in the swamp, only obscured by more visible beasts.
The views expressed above are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Penn Democrats.