When President Donald Trump appointed retired general John Kelly as his chief of staff on July 28, 2017, the press portrayed Kelly as bringing order to a chaotic White House. The New York Times declared that “John Kelly, New Chief of Staff, Is Seen as Beacon of Discipline.” Mike Allen of Axios relayed a quote from an outside Trump advisor who claimed that “Kelly, being a mature general, may finally be able to get Donald to pivot into a presidential dynamic.” This type coverage stressed how Kelly’s disciplined approach would curb Trump’s impulsive tweeting and act as a moderating influence on the easily triggered president. Kelly, this argument further implied, would smooth over the rough edges of the Trump White House and align its behavior with American political standards. Kelly’s recent behavior reveals, however, that Kelly isn’t some moderating influence on Trump. He’s a MAGA true believer.
During his time as commander of U.S. Southern Command overseeing US military activities in Central and South America, Kelly spread misinformation about the threat of international terrorism. He falsely told a congressional panel in 2015 that “You know, since 9/11, there’s half a million people have died from narco-terrorism, as we call it, in, down where I live. Very few have died from, you know, traditional terrorism, if you will, since 9/11.” He has made unsubstantiated claims that Lebanese communities in Central America have laundered money for Hezbollah and are trying to build up the terror group’s presence in Central America so that they can launch attacks against the United States. He’s also shown a Trump-level of ignorance regarding the motives of terror groups. Kelly told a Memorial Day gathering in 2013 that America’s enemies, “I don’t know why they hate us, and I frankly don’t care, but they do hate us and are driven irrationally to our destruction.” That speech plays well to the jingoist, war-mongers among us, but lacks nuance you’d want in someone tasked with protecting this country from external threats.
Kelly unconditionally supports Trump’s border wall and regressive immigration policies. In February, he expressed his hope that the US would begin construction on Trump’s border wall within months and complete it within two years. During his six month tenure as secretary of Homeland Security, as Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker wrote:
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 per cent and D.H.S became one of the few branches of the federal government that has been both willing and able to execute Trump’s policy priorities.
Kelly also supported and oversaw the implementation of the Trump administration’s various travel bans.
In the last month or so, Kelly’s joined Trump in launching attacks on women and supporting Lost Cause ideology. First, he condemned Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson for accurately relaying President Trump’s grossly insensitive comments given to the widow of a fallen soldier. Kelly then criticized a speech that Wilson had given in 2015 claiming that “A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.” A review of Wilson’s speech, however, revealed that Kelly lied about the nature of her comments.
As Erin detailed last week, Kelly also recently praised Robert E. Lee as a man of good character and blamed the Civil War on a lack of compromise between the North and the South. Erin wrote that “Either John Kelly believes black Americans were better off and happy in slavery, and therefore ‘compromise’ would not have harmed them, or he just thinks they didn’t (and don’t) deserve equality, and therefore ‘compromise’ would not have harmed them more than they deserved.”
Kelly’s comments about Congresswoman Wilson highlight Kelly’s Trump-like affinity for demonizing and denigrating his critics. Kelly called criticism of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay “foolishness.” In a speech to Department of Homeland Security employees, Kelly stated that “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade.” He further whined about the criticism that ICE and other customs officials have received. Kelly complained that “Similar to the treatment suffered by law enforcement over the last few years, they are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion.” In June 2017, he cited Trump’s “wisdom” in implementing his travel ban and chided members of Congress for debating its merits.
Between Kelly’s attacks on his opponents, arrogance, and eager willingness to enact the policies of the Trump administration, one thing is clear. John Kelly isn’t some moderating influence, bringing the Trump administration in line with historical norms. He’s a willing partner and enabler in Trump’s racist, misogynist, and abusive administration. The quicker we recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.