Do you remember back when everybody thought John Kelly was going to calm down the Trump White House?
Stop laughing. Although it has been another wow of a week, hasn’t it? We had one top administration official, Rob Porter, resigning over claims of domestic abuse regarding two ex-wives. Kelly defended Porter as “a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional” shortly before a picture popped up of one former Mrs. Porter sporting a black eye.
This was a little bit after Kelly himself made headlines for suggesting that some young immigrants couldn’t qualify for federal help because they were just “too lazy to get off their asses” and file some paperwork. Meanwhile the president, apparently unsupervised, was calling for a government shutdown and lobbying enthusiastically for an expensive new military parade. Because he saw one in Paris and thought it was cool.
A good chief of staff advises the president against doing things that will make the administration look stupid or crazy. So, are we all in agreement that Kelly, retired general turned Trump chief of staff, appears to be … a failure? And sort of a jerk in the bargain?
When Kelly first came over to run the Trump team there was near-unanimous expectation that he’d be the adult in the room. And indeed the chain of command got more efficient and some problem employees were evicted. However, there’s a limit to how long you can live off your laurels for firing Omarosa and The Mooch.
Kelly did nothing about the fact that the White House is loud and mean and generally unfathomable. Except make things even worse. This, after all, is the guy who’s intervened whenever Donald Trump is in his expansive give-me-an-immigration-bill-to-sign phase and pushed him over to Haiti-is-a-shithole territory.
“It almost makes you nostalgic for Reince Priebus. Never thought I’d say that,” mused Chris Whipple, the author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
When Kelly was head of the Department of Homeland Security, many Democrats liked him – even though he once said his congressional critics should either change the laws or “shut up.” He seemed smart, and he knew stuff. They tended to blame anything insane that was happening on Trump. But now it’s becoming clear that Kelly is the point man on immigration insecurity, heading off the president’s impulses for outreach, no matter how fleeting.
A lot of his defenders are fading away. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta always used to be supportive, since Kelly was once his military aide. No more. The best Panetta could do in a phone interview was to suggest the new, bad version of his old friend might be the product of too much time spent with his current boss. “On the other hand,” he added, “who the hell knows?”
The world began to notice that Kelly was perhaps not as cool, calm and collected as we’d bargained for when he was coordinating a condolence call by the president to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, was killed while serving on a strange mission in Niger.
It did not go well. Myeshia Johnson said the president seemed to forget her husband’s name. His idea of comfort, she said, was to tell her La David knew “what he was signing up for.” Trump naturally denied everything. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., a family friend, made the whole disaster public. Kelly then waded in with an emotional speech in which he assailed Wilson for taking credit for getting funding for a Florida building named after two slain FBI agents. Its overall weirdness was matched only by its total inaccuracy.
The next step, in theory, would be an apologetic call from Kelly to the congresswoman. Or assigning someone to reach out to La David Johnson’s widow and try to smooth the whole awful situation over. Never happened.
“He’s had a very high profile from the moment he stepped up to the White House podium and launched that infamous tirade against Representative Wilson,” said Whipple. That kind of outspokenness in a chief of staff is “very unusual,” he added, not to mention “politically inept.”
It’s hard to remember many times that Kelly’s outspokenness helped the president out of trouble. After the Charlottesville tragedy, he did look depressed while Trump blathered an off-key defense of the Nazi-friendly marchers. But later when Kelly had a chance to comment himself, he offered up a theory that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
Even in this administration, it’s possible to be better. Think about Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who’s trying to get Congress to pass a defense budget. Not necessarily easy under normal circumstances, and definitely harder when the president is prioritizing that super-duper military parade.
Asked about Trump’s goal to recreate Bastille Day in Washington, Mattis said mildly that he was “putting together some options” and moved on. He did not claim the House of Representatives was too lazy to get up off its ass and do what the White House wants.
Maybe Mattis could be chief of staff. Hard to imagine things would get worse. Or maybe we could get Priebus back.