John Kelly was hired to contain the chaos in the White House. He met his match with Donald Trump.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is on his way out the door of the Trump White House, almost a year and a half after he took on the role to bring calm to the chaos.
As Kelly departs, it’s clear the chaos has won.
Last summer, the Homeland Security Secretary and former general replaced Reince Priebus to provide “much-needed order” to the West Wing. The “hard-ass” Kelly would run a “tight ship.” He had the “rare ability to rein in Trump” and was “empowered to be a true chief of staff.” His “military discipline” and “reputation for straight talk” and “organizational talent” provided White House observers with “unmistakable signs of order.”
Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said Kelly “brings order anywhere he goes, he’s very strong, a very quiet, quiet strength he has, determination.” Even before he was selected to run Homeland Security, Politico suggested he could be a “force for moderation.”
Trump himself tweeted:
I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2017
…and a Great Leader. John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2017
Instead of a calmer, more even-tempered White House, Kelly leaves behind a bigger dumpster fire than when he arrived. He failed to be the grownup in the White House, and proved unable to rein in Trump’s basest instincts.
From the day he rode down the golden escalator in Trump Tower to announce his presidential candidacy, it was clear that Trump’s approach to immigration was radically different — and one that would not be friendly to immigrants. Kelly not only enabled Trump’s worst instincts, but on his watch, the president’s policies have led to a full scale human rights catastrophe, with babies wrenched from the arms of immigrant parents.
The idea of separating immigrants from their families at the border to deter future immigration was something Kelly said he was considering as DHS chief in March 2017.
DHS Secretary says he's considering separating immigant children from their parents to deter illegal immigration https://t.co/VI7iRONztC
— The Situation Room (@CNNSitRoom) March 6, 2017
Once he became White House chief of staff, he allowed that seed of an idea to germinate into the official Trump policy which manifested in thousands of children being held in detention camps across the country.
Immigrant detentions under Kelly’s DHS successor, Kirstjen Nielsen, have hit record highs. Helping the Dreamers get legal status — ostensibly the easiest immigration compromise before the Trump administration last year — was imperiled by Kelly’s dismissive and callous attitude: they are “too lazy to get off their asses.” The administration most recently has been refusing asylum seekers with tear gas.
Kelly was not the only West Wing employee with radical immigration views that turned into Trump administration policy (see Miller, Stephen), but it is Kelly’s job to rein in overzealous staff. As he himself is an anti-immigration zealot, there was little motivation to, even if he had been inclined to.
Relationship with African American leaders
Before Kelly, the White House’s relationship with African American leaders was dismissive and precarious at best.
The White House chief of staff did nothing as his boss repeatedly referred to Rep. Maxine Waters (R-CA) as an “extraordinarily low IQ person.” Kelly himself attacked a black leader after Trump’s comments to a grieving widow of fallen soldier La David Johnson that “he knew what he signed up for” were made public by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL).
“It eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress,” Kelly said of Wilson’s decision to talk about Johnson’s mother’s call with the president. “It stuns me.”
He then erroneously claimed Wilson took credit for getting the funding for a building in Florida. Trump initially denied he had made the controversial comment, but Kelly’s public rebuke of Wilson confirmed it. Kelly was silent about his boss’ own decision to viciously attack a Gold Star family in 2016 after they spoke out against his islamophobia.
Kelly also minimized the issue of slavery, ascribing the cause of the Civil War to a “lack of an ability of compromise,” and calling Gen. Robert E. Lee an “honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state.”
In the investigation’s early days, the Trump White House quietly tolerated Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, and as time went on even touted its cooperation with prosecutors. More recently, however, Trump has taken on a much more combative tone against Mueller’s investigation and preparing supporters to disbelieve everything Mueller will say.
Before Kelly, Trump’s approach to trade, while very unconventional for a Republican, was more about talking tough but still had him listening to allies abroad and also in the business community. He didn’t take actions that roiled markets.
Russia and Vladimir Putin
Before Kelly, President Trump was cautiously cagey about Russia, if a bit too cozy.
After a year and a half of Kelly’s tough discipline, the world has seen Trump give Russian President Vladimir Putin everything he wanted at the infamous July Helsinki press conference, allow Russia to make geopolitical policy gains on energy and NATO, and most recently meet with Putin in Buenos Aires during the G-20 after having publicly cancelled the meeting over Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Before Kelly came to the White House, Democrats were thoroughly out of power in all branches of government and across the states. Despite over-performing in early special elections, the party representing Trump’s major political opposition was moribund and still trying to find their footing.
As Kelly departs in the wake of an honest-to-goodness blue wave, the Democrats will be taking back the speaker’s gavel in the House next year, and an energized resistance eyes the 2020 elections as a chance to make further progress and remove Trump from office. Democrats running the House means giving their committee chairs subpoena power and the ability to actually offer oversight over the Trump administration.
Kelly certainly played a role in exacerbating Trump’s baser instincts, despite the former general’s moderating and calming reputation. Any feeling of relief when Kelly joined the administration was unwarranted, as the White House’s position in several key areas was much worse for his presence.
It’s not clear if anyone would have been able to actually rein in Trump, but some of Trump’s worst moments came on Kelly’s watch.