John Kelly is playing an increasingly interesting role in the Trump administration. When he was brought in to be Chief of Staff in July of last year many pundits thought, or hoped, that he could bring some calm and competency to the White House. It quickly became apparent that Kelly would not be able to do that. Nonetheless, if for no other reason than his age, posture and military baring he still seemed to be one of the adults in the room for several months in an administration staffed by miscreants like Steve Bannon, wildly unprepared people like Hope Hicks and wildly unprepared miscreants like Stephen Miller. Unfortunately, over time Kelly revealed that while he may have been an adult by the standards of this White House, he was a troublingly bigoted one.
Last week it became clear that Kelly a man who has benefited greatly from the image of being a law abiding military man of integrity ran interference for Rob Porter, another senior administration staff person who has been accused by his two ex-wives of having abused them. These accusations were not entirely new and have prevented Porter from getting the security clearance necessary to do his job. Despite the compelling and persuasive nature of this case, Kelly’s first reaction was to rally around Porter while Donald Trump, not to be outdone reverted to his old habits of misogyny and disrespect for women in his defense of Porter.
In recent days Kelly has been the target of some well-deserved criticism for supporting Porter despite knowing about the abuse allegations, which were investigated, for some time now. More significantly, it is also apparent Kelly shared classified information with Porter despite Porter having been denied the necessary security clearance. If this sound familiar in a fun-house mirror kind of way, that is because it is. For much of 2016, we heard Republican allegations that Hillary Clinton’s handling of her personal email, which may or may not have included some classified material, was the biggest issue in American politics. This is why the “lock her up” chant was repeated at so many Trump rallies.
Nobody is chanting “lock him up” about the White House Chief of Staff, but the case that Kelly mishandled national security information almost makes itself. In a White House that can be charitably described as dysfunctional, one of the few seemingly competent people, Rob Porter, lacked the security clearance needed for his job, which involved a lot of access to important documents that the President needed to see. Kelly, perhaps just in the name of expedience, decided that ignoring Porter’s lack of security clearance was okay. This would be a problem for any administration, but is particularly galling given that Kelly serves a President who made accusations of mishandling of classified data by his opponent one of the pillars of his campaign.
As this latest White House scandal continues, John Kelly finds himself in an interesting situation. It remains true that in a tallest building in Topeka kind of way he is one of the most competent and experienced people on the President’s staff, but in comparison to previous White House Chiefs of Staff, he is a complete disaster. Additionally, Kelly has demonstrated that he possesses all of the bigotry and venality of the President he serves and shares his peculiar insistence on forever seeing himself as a victim despite being in a position of great power.
Kelly was supposed to be one of the generals who, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor HR McMaster, was going to contain Donald Trump and limit the damage the unhinged and authoritarian leaning President could do-or at least that is what many hoped. The complicity of John Kelly in Donald Trump’s bigotry and misogyny reflects very poorly on the military and raises the question of how it was possible that in an institution that, rightly in many regards, prides itself on not discriminating against people because of race, creed or gender, and that has made real strides, but still has a ways to go, with regards to LGBT Americans, a man like Kelly was able to become so powerful. It is difficult to look at John Kelly, who appears to be a grumpy old bigot directly out of central casting, and wonder how many more like him are serving in powerful positions in the military. The answer may be that there are very few and that Kelly is indeed an aberration. We can certainly hope that is the case, but John Kelly who was supposed to bring military style discipline to the White House has instead brought a tenuous respect for the law, and views of minorities and women that, in some respects, are damaging not just to the White House but also to the military with which he is so strongly identified.
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar, consultant and writer based in New York and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell