At the end of July, the White House was at rock bottom. The president was tweeting at all hours of the day and night. Everyone was leaking anything they could get their hands on. Anthony Scaramucci was hired as communications director and fired ten days later. And John McCain killed what may have been the GOP’s best chance at repealing Obamacare with a Gladiator-esque thumbs down. Enter John Kelly.
Kelly, who Donald Trump referred to as “one of my generals,” replaced Reince Priebus as chief of staff on July 28, leaving the Department of Homeland Security after just six months. He was widely seen as the man for the moment. “The kind of discipline that he is going to bring is important,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told The New York Times. Axios’s Mike Allen summed up the conventional wisdom, writing, “Kelly has a reputation for efficient management of complex organizations, and is a no-nonsense guy who can make the trains run on time.”
Since then, the president has continued his wild tweeting. He has threatened North Korea with nuclear war. He has said “both sides” were responsible for the deadly violence in Charlottesville. Obamacare repeal stalled again, and his relationship with congressional Republicans remains poisonous. He jeopardized the health care of millions and the immigration status of hundreds of thousands. And he spent the last week defending a false claim that his predecessors did not call the families of soldiers killed in action.
With a passionate, freewheeling, and misleading press conference yesterday—the kind of spectacle that we have come to expect from this administration, but would be considered downright bizarre in any other circumstance—Kelly brought his image as a moderating influence to a definitive end. By all appearances, he has done little to stem the chaos emanating from the White House, and yesterday he showed that he is more than willing to facilitate it.
It’s worth remembering that Trump, under scrutiny for failing to call the families of four American servicemen killed in a mysterious ambush in Niger two weeks ago, started this fiasco with a completely unnecessary lie. His claim that Barack Obama and others did not call the families of slain soldiers set off a howling controversy, prompting Representative Frederica Wilson to divulge that she overheard Trump making disrespectful remarks—“He knew what he signed up for”—to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson as she was en route to collect Johnson’s body. Johnson’s mother also told The Washington Post: “Trump did disrespect my son.”
In characteristic fashion, Trump claimed Wilson was lying and doubled down on his initial claim, forcing his entire staff, most conspicuously Kelly, to provide him with cover. The White House leaked that Obama had not called Kelly after his son, Robert, was killed in action in Iraq in 2010. Trump cited Robert’s death when defending his own comments, telling Fox News Radio, “You could ask General Kelly, ‘Did he get a call from Obama?’ I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy. I can tell you my policy is I called every one of them.” (The last statement was, naturally, a lie.)
When Kelly stepped to the podium on Thursday, he had the chance to douse this conflagration. Clearly upset at the extent to which the conversation about the four soldiers had become politicized, Kelly stressed the importance of their sacrifice. “Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, or Coast Guardsmen in combat. Let me tell you what happens,” he began. Then he explained, in emotional and vivid terms, what happens when a soldier’s body is brought back to the United States, and how the families are notified.
At one point, Kelly only called on journalists who said they knew Gold Star families. The charitable reading of this decision was that Kelly was trying to prove a point. The journalists in the White House press room aren’t part of Gold Star families and many don’t know any—that lack of familiarity has led to this issue becoming a circus over the last week. Kelly, this reading goes, was trying to remind the press corps of the huge (and growing) disconnect between military and civilian cultures. The less charitable reading is that Kelly, like the rest of the White House, has nothing but contempt for the members of the press and views them as un-American.
Kelly also argued that Wilson and Johnson’s widow had misconstrued Trump’s meaning. He related what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joe Dunford told him after his own son was killed. “He said, ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,’” Kelly said. “‘He knew what he was getting into by joining that one percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war. When he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.’” That’s what Trump “tried to say,” Kelly explained.
If Kelly had left it at that, perhaps the controversy could have been chalked up to miscommunication. Instead he took a page from Trump’s playbook and went on offense, singling out Wilson for condemnation. “We were stunned,” he said. “Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone who was that empty of a barrel, we were stunned. But we didn’t go to the press.” He added, “I appeal to America, let’s not let this last thing that’s held sacred in our society—a young man or young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country—let’s try to somehow to keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.” Kelly was so mad, he said, that he went to Arlington National Cemetery to take a 90-minute walk.
But Wilson was not just some meddling congresswoman. She had mentored Johnson and known his family for years. The call had been put on speakerphone so everyone could listen to the president. Even if it was a matter of miscommunication, she had every right to be upset. And Kelly skated over the fact that he was acknowledging the substance of a call that Trump had claimed was an outright lie. (Later, in the dead of night, Trump repeated his claim in a tweet, claiming Wilson “gave a total lie on the content!”) This is not the behavior of a man keeping the president in check.
Later, Kelly appeared to take a swipe at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents who memorably spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer and drew Trump’s fury. He also made an oblique comment about respecting women. “When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”
Is Kelly implying that the Khans were responsible for tainting the reputation of Gold Star families, not the presidential candidate who attacked them? Is the comment about women an allusion to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, or a rebuke of Trump, who has been accused by numerous women of harassment and assault? That he left it so open to interpretation is not to his credit. It advances the notion that the Khans’ objections to Trump’s Islamophobia were illegitimate, and that Weinstein’s misconduct somehow invalidates the liberal criticism of Trump’s misogyny.
At bottom, Representative Wilson didn’t make the death of four American soldiers an issue. Neither did the media. President Trump did by slandering his predecessors. Kelly responded by making the kind of case that Donald Trump would make, which is that the media and the Democrats are un-American and out to get Donald Trump. He has nonsensically claimed that Trump’s behavior was on board, while everyone else was out of line. This is how Trump talks about America and how Trump talks about himself. Which means that Kelly is not just trying to make the trains run on time, but to make sure they reach specific destinations.