He made his name by firing contestants on NBC’s The Apprentice. In real life, though, Donald Trump prefers to avoid sacking people in person. “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” the US president tweeted from Air Force One last July, without telling the incumbent chief of staff, Reince Priebus. The latter only discovered he’d lost his job after checking his phone on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.
Six chaotic months into the Trump administration, Republican Party apparatchik Priebus was out. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, was in. As one of the longest-serving commanders in the US military and the highest-ranking military officer to lose a child in combat – his son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 – Kelly was greeted with a mixture of acclaim and relief from the Washington press corps. He was “tasked with bringing order to an often chaotic White House” (CNN); he would “bring some semblance of traditional discipline to the West Wing” (Washington Post); he was a “beacon of discipline” and “unafraid to challenge” Trump (New York Times). Kelly, agreed the pundits, would be the “adult in the room”; a restraint on an out-of-control commander-in-chief.
It was all a pipe dream, of course. Where was Kelly when Trump was praising the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and blaming the violence on “both sides”? Where was the retired general when the president was retweeting the fascist, racist Britain First in November 2017? Where was Kelly, a former homeland security secretary, when Trump was lambasting the FBI and department of justice this month for daring to investigate his presidential campaign’s connections to Russia? Where was the grown-up when the president was expressing sympathy – “We certainly wish him well. It’s obviously a very tough time for him” – for his former staff secretary Rob Porter, who had to quit the administration in early February after credible allegations against him of domestic abuse?
Kelly is now under pressure to follow Porter out of the White House door, having kept the latter on as staff secretary despite receiving FBI warnings about his history of abuse. He also defended Porter as “a man of true integrity and honour, and I can’t say enough good things about him” after the story broke; and then urged Porter to “stay and fight”.
Trump is said to have soured on the general, who he once dubbed a “great American”, while his daughter Ivanka is reportedly headhunting a replacement for him. So, was this experiment – giving the vital job of chief of staff to a military outsider with zero experience of DC politics – always destined to fail? Former Obama-era defence secretary Leon Panetta has tried to defend Kelly, who served as his aide at the Pentagon, by blaming Trump. “The new, bad version of his old friend might be the product of too much time spent with his current boss,” the New York Times summarised Panetta as saying.
Yet the reality is that Kelly was never a moderate or pragmatist of any kind and has always been as Trumpian as his Oval Office boss. It’s almost certainly what attracted the president to him in the first place. Consider the evidence. Trump is a wannabe strongman with a clear authoritarian streak, right? Kelly, when he was at the department of homeland security last April, told members of Congress who had criticised his tough approach to immigration enforcement to either change the law or “shut up”.
The following month, when Trump was presented with a ceremonial sword by the US Coast Guard at a public ceremony, Kelly was caught on an open mic telling the president: “Use that on the press, sir.”
Trump’s a racist and a reactionary who likes to bash minorities and migrants, right? Kelly, according to the New York Times, has told fellow members of the Trump White House that if it were up to him, the number of refugees admitted into the US would be between zero and one. He has suggested young undocumented immigrants who failed to apply for the Obama-era deportation protection programme known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, were “too lazy to get off their asses”. Following the controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments, which prompted the neo-Nazi demonstrations and violence in Charlottesville last summer, Kelly decided to blame the US Civil War not on the slave-owning Confederacy or the racist ideology of white supremacy, but on “the lack of an ability to compromise”. Sorry, what?
Trump is a serial liar, right? Kelly has form here, too. The chief of staff provided a timeline of the Rob Porter story that contradicted the White House press office’s version of events, prompting one unnamed White House official to tell the Washington Post that the general was a “big fat liar”. Last October, Kelly tried to defend the president from attacks by Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson by calling her an “empty barrel” and suggesting she’d unfairly tried to take credit in a 2015 speech for securing funding for an FBI building. It was all a lie; every line he attributed to her turned out to be fabricated. Yet Kelly, to this day, refuses to apologise to Wilson.
Writing in these pages a little over a year ago, I pointed out how Trump’s election had ushered in “a new era of kakistocracy”; that is, government by the worst people. Kelly’s appointment as chief of staff, and his awful and inept conduct in office, is further confirmation of this. You could even say he is the worst of the worst. The chief of staff, after all, is Trump’s enabler; the ex-military man gives the draft-dodging president cover. The sooner Trump is forced to fire him – via tweet? Text message? Facebook post? Who cares? – the better.
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia