Serving Trump Revealed Who John Kelly Always Was

Some who enter this president’s service are changed for the worse. Others have been that way all along.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

John Kelly’s forthcoming departure as White House chief of staff is a reminder of an important but underpublicized distinction among those who have chosen to support or work for Donald Trump.The distinction is between those whom Trump has made bad, and those who have been revealed as bad through their association with this man. (There’s also a small “not yet bad” category, which I will get to later on.)

In the first category,“made bad,” are people who in other circumstances might have taken a harder, higher-minded path. They might have chosen to stand on principle, to take the long view, to seek out reasonable compromises, to defend the norms and values of American institutions—and, overall, to behave in a way they’d be happy to talk about later on. Many of these people have actually made those choices at previous times in their life.

The way Trump has made them bad is to put them in a corner where day-by-day they have to choose: Do they maintain their place within his organization, sheltered against his ridicule or wrath? Do they remain, even if it means accepting Trump’s lies, lying when necessary themselves, ignoring the standards they’d apply to any other leaders, and renouncing the policy goals they had defended through their previous careers? For today’s Republicans, those goals would include at least a lip-service interest in reducing deficits, a ferocious opposition to talk of trade wars and tariffs, at least a rhetorical reverence for the military, and an assumption that immigration was overall a plus for the United States. This is to say nothing of the modern GOP’s hair-trigger willingness to investigate possible conflicts of interest or abuses of executive power by the Clinton and Obama administrations.

To stay connected to Trump, Republicans have had to turn their backs on their previous lives and values. In being pushed toward that choice, some people who in other circumstance would have been “good”—by their own lights, and the outside world’s—have been made bad.

The most heartbreaking illustration in this category is of course H. R. McMaster. When the original call came to serve as Trump’s national-security adviser, replacing the notorious Michael Flynn, McMaster likely felt honor-bound to accept. He was still an active-duty three-star Army general, and this was his new posting. He could accept, or he could retire and resign. No doubt he also felt that he could serve the nation by applying a buffer of experience and mature judgment to whatever Trump might have in mind.

But as the months went on, before his inevitable and humiliating departure, McMaster had to say goodbye to many of the values that had defined him. In the Army, he had been known for his independence, and his insistence on the need for the professional officer corps to defend its professional values and integrity. Most of today’s career U.S. soldiers have read McMaster’s seminal 1990s book, Dereliction of Duty, written when he was a young instructor at West Point. In it, he argued that part of the tragedy of Vietnam could be traced to ethical failures by the generals and admirals of that era. They knew that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policy was based on falsehoods and headed for disaster. But they did not stand up to it, or him—even as their troops headed for disaster in the jungle. They should have been more willing to risk their careers to defend their institution, was McMaster’s judgment in the book.

Some young West Point instructor of the future will write about the military relations of this era, and will have to examine the way McMaster accommodated himself to Trump’s fantasized view of the world (for instance, in this op-ed), only to lose in the end both his position and much of his previous identity.

Sean Spicer? In his previous press-relations roles, he had been known as a staunch defender of Republican arguments, but not as a liar. By the time he was forced out of his service to Trump, the fantasies he delivered from the podium had immortalized him as “Spicey” on Saturday Night Live.

Rex Tillerson? Two years ago, he was a titan of world industry, who ended up part of Trump’s team precisely because the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates had been so impressed by his sophistication and skills. Rob Porter? (Remember him? Though in his case a public role brought attention to allegations of long-standing private behavior.) Or Mick Mulvaney, who built his Tea Party career inveighing against deficits and now is the budget director presiding over a record fiscal hemorrhage?

A harder case: Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham has long been a partisan, but one known for his candor and flashes of self-awareness. Something happened over the past year to make him a parody of the “if Trump says two plus two is five, it’s five” down-the-line loyalist. This may help him in his next South Carolina primary. It has forever separated him from his role model, John McCain. (McCain had his own contradictions, but wouldn’t fully swallow his self-respect merely out of fear of Trump.)

An easier case: most of the Republican congressional establishment. Paul Ryan came to Congress as an ostentatiously “wonkish” budget expert. He has blandly presided over unprecedented splurges of boom-time deficit spending and expansions of unchecked executive power.

There is no point in listing all the other Republicans who have talked about accountability, constitutional balance, personal probity, and fiscal restraint but now have entirely forgotten those concepts—and that they, especially as senators, have an important check-and-balance responsibility. They know who they are, and they’ll be remembered. (Voters of Maine remember Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican who was the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. Senate—and for most of her career the only woman in the Senate— for her brave early stand against Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. I suspect they’ll remember Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican from Maine, less admiringly.)

As for the other category, those “revealed as bad”: These are individual counterparts to the effect of a demagogic leader on the population as a whole. Every society has always included its hateful and even violent factions. The best leaders try to mute and discourage those impulses; the worst leaders egg them on.

But how people behave, when they think that all the normal constraints are off, reveals a lot about them. And the people who have revealed themselves this way under Trump include former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, whose rule-breaking and corruption sufficed to remove him from the Cabinet; Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who seems to be on his way out; a handful of other Cabinet members and officials; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with her disregard for a norm that even her Watergate-era predecessor Ron Ziegler observed (namely, that a press secretary should try not to lie unless really necessary, or useful); the extended Trump family, notably through the combined sense of entitled and self-regard with which Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have approached the world; Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort; and … John Kelly.

Two years ago, Kelly was a widely esteemed four-star Marine Corps general, a former head of the U.S. Southern Command, and all the more respected for the stoicism with which his family bore the tragedy of their son’s death in combat in Afghanistan.

Now Kelly has endured nearly a year of dismissive leaks from inside the White House, as the object of rumorology about when exactly Trump would cut him loose. Worse, he has revealed himself as emotionally in sync with the angriest and most Bannon-esque parts of Trump’s approach to the world—a reflection more of the part of Boston in which he was raised in the Fifties and Sixties than of the fully integrated and inclusive modern military in which he spent the first 40 years of his career.

When Frederica Wilson—a congresswoman from Florida who is black—criticized Trump for his response to the family of a constituent who had died in combat, Kelly dismissed her as an “empty barrel that makes the most noise.” In his six months as Trump’s first secretary of Homeland Security, he enforced with extra gusto anti-immigrant roundups by ICE. When protests began about the policy of separating children from their parents at the border, he said on NPR that “the children will be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever.” The “whatever,” including “misplacing” children and the detention camps where others were put, is to the country’s lasting shame. Kelly also said this past summer that “a big name of the game is deterrence,” to keep families from trying to cross the border. Taking children from their parents “would be a tough deterrent,” Kelly said on CNN. Kelly would not have revealed these and other parts of himself in public had he not crossed paths with Donald Trump.

I’ve realized that as I’ve read the news over the months, I’ve subconsciously been making the classifications: Who has been turned into something worse by Donald Trump? Who was that way all along? (How would Rudy Giuliani fit into this model? Alan Dershowitz, in his new role as Trump stalwart? Mike Pence?) I’ll keep applying this filter, and also thinking about the dwindling ranks of exceptions. The main one, of course, is James Mattis, the secretary of defense. He seemed to take a big step in the wrong direction when he approved the political stunt of deploying troops to the southern border, before the election, to fend off “the caravan.” But otherwise he’s mostly been sure-footed, and is the one senior Trump official whose personal and professional reputation is not yet in tatters, compared with the pre-Trump years.

(It’s a long falloff to second place, which may be occupied by Nikki Haley. She hopped off a foundering vessel just before it went down, with minimal lasting damage to herself.)

Of course, there is one person who has revealed the most about who he really is. It should not come as a surprise—the evidence was there all along—but he’s brought a lot of others down with him.