John Kelly Is a Trumpist After All
The White House chief of staff’s stylistic differences have obscured the extent to which he, like many Republicans, is aligned with the president on substance.
During a press briefing earlier this month, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly alluded to a pair of viral images of him. In one short clip, he rubs his eyes as President Trump defends a soft white supremacy following violence in Charlottesville. In another, he hides his face in his hand as Trump derides Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” at the United Nations.
Those moments weren’t what they seemed, he said: “You guys with the cameras always catch me when I'm thinking hard and it looks like I'm frustrated and mad.”
Several subsequent comments, most recently a baffling, historically illiterate defense of Robert E. Lee delivered on Fox News on Monday night, have made Kelly’s denial more credible. In addition to having shown the imprudence of overinterpreting brief visual evidence, the last few weeks have demonstrated that, while Kelly is frequently at odds with Trump’s stylistic approach, the men are largely simpatico on substance.
When Kelly, then secretary of homeland security, was moved to the chief of staff’s job at the time of the Reince Priebus–Anthony Scaramucci bloodbath, in late July, the word was that he would either instill order in the White House or go down trying. Although the West Wing began to leak somewhat less profusely, a string of reports soon sketched out how things were going. Kelly was able to restrict the revolving door of hangers-on cycling through the Oval Office, and to apparently narrow the flow of unvetted information reaching the president. (He couldn’t restrict Trump’s late-night and early-morning cable-TV habit, though.)
Kelly’s attempts at order brought him into conflict with Trump. The New York Times reported at the start of September that the president had bridled against Kelly’s approach and lashed out at him. Rumors of an early exit abounded. By the time Kelly showed up at the October 12 press briefing where he scolded the photographers, he was there to insist that he wasn’t about to quit or be fired.
The last three weeks have shown a different side of Kelly. After Trump used the case of Kelly’s son, a Marine killed in Afghanistan, to score political points in a battle over condolences given to Gold Star families, some pundits expected a poor reaction from Kelly. Instead, the chief of staff came back to the lectern in the Brady Briefing Room—a second, rare appearance there in a week—and staunchly defended Trump. Then he lit into Representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, as an “empty barrel,” offering what turned out to be an inaccurate recollection of an event in 2015. When video evidence showed that Kelly’s account was false, he refused to apologize.
This is distinctively Trumpian behavior, and as Peter Baker wrote in an incisive New York Times story last week, there was more of this behind the scenes. During a discussion of refugee quotas, Kelly reportedly said he thought the appropriate figure was zero. He also said Mexico was a third-world state on the verge of a Venezuela-style collapse. Although Mexico’s government is precarious, his dire analysis is shared by few observers.
The most striking example of Kelly’s Trumpian views, however, is his commentary from Monday night on Fox News.
“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” Kelly said. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”
As my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in detail, this is an atrociously bad analysis of the causes of the war, but it is closely aligned with Trump’s own, bad historical sense. It is not surprising that Kelly and Trump might find common ground on issues like border security, but it is remarkable for Kelly to stick his neck out on the Civil War question, applauding the military chief of a treasonous rebellion and giving aid and comfort to neo-Confederates.
As Baker wrote, “While some officials had predicted Mr. Kelly would be a calming chief of staff for an impulsive president, recent days have made clear that he is more aligned with President Trump than anticipated.” The reality is that there is no contradiction here. Kelly seems to genuinely view the chaotic approach that Trump brings to the White House as hazardous to national security and effective governance, but he is ideologically in step with Trump in a way that was not previously clear, and that has been obscured but not changed by their stylistic differences.
Take Trump’s feud with the NFL (if you can remember that one—it was before the Manafort–Gates indictment, before the Papadopoulos plea, before the war of words with Jeff Flake, before the Niger fiasco, before the Corker feud, before the Puerto Rico blowup, before the Tom Price resignation, and yet still barely a month ago). The headline at the time was that Kelly disapproved of Trump’s decision to pick a fight with black athletes and the league. At the same time, he told CNN, “I believe every American, when the national anthem is played, should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed.” In other words, Kelly didn’t think Trump was wrong; he just thought it wasn’t a wise use of the bully pulpit.
Some of the similarities between the men likely derive from their roots: They’re both white men of a certain generation (Trump is 71; Kelly, at 67, is the oldest man to hold his job since Don Regan), and despite their career differences—Trump as a playboy socialite, Kelly as a four-star Marine general—they both look with longing to an idealized past in which gender roles were clear, men of a certain profile were respected, and America was for Americans. As Kelly put it during an October 19 press briefing: “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life—the dignity of life—is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.”
Seldom stated outright, but often hovering just below the surface, is that in this golden past era, a vaguely defined ’50s-ish time period, white Americans’ cultural dominance was secure. But race occasionally bubbles through—when Trump attacks black athletes for kneeling to bring attention to racial injustice; when Kelly scolds Frederica Wilson for being uppity; and most commonly these days, when the Civil War comes up, as it seems to do with unusual frequency. It’s impossible to imagine a “compromise” to forestall the Civil War that doesn’t both degrade black humanity and leave African Americans out of the political conversation. But as wrongheaded as the Trump–Kelly interpretation of the war is, the men are products of their time. As my colleague Matt Ford has written, school curricula, when they were children, even in their respective hometowns of New York and Boston, tended to downplay slavery as a cause of the war and praise the honor of the South and leaders like Lee in particular.
There were clues to Kelly’s alignment with Trump all along, but they were overshadowed by the focus on his orderliness. It was not coincidence that he was chosen to lead the Department of Homeland Security after Trump ran the most aggressive border-security and immigration-opposing platform in generations, nor that he took to the mission with gusto and won Trump’s approval for his performance. As commander of the U.S. Southern Command during his military career, he was an unreconstructed drug warrior and opposed the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, even sabotaging the Obama administration’s efforts to do so, White House officials complained to Reuters. He also dismissed critiques of torture techniques used after 9/11.
In his ambivalent approach to Trump—positive or even enthusiastic on substance, dismayed in style—Kelly is not dissimilar from many other Republicans. Trump is sometimes presented as a radical break from GOP orthodoxy (not least by conservatives, both Republicans and ex-Republicans, who oppose him), and there are policy areas such as free trade where that is true. The break is not so clear, though. Kelly fits with a group of Republicans who are culturally conservative—they were uncomfortable with gay marriage but have mostly come around; they would never identify themselves as racist, and respect Martin Luther King Jr., but think the police deserve respect and are unnerved by the Black Lives Matter movement; they generally get the critique of Confederate monuments, but they don’t see why it’s a big deal and are uncomfortable with the idea of tearing down the statues, viewing it as radical iconoclasm. They are the kind of Republicans who privately thought Jesse Helms was a racist nut, but weren’t opposed to running a Willie Horton–style ad in a tight race.
There are other Republicans who have decided they have no truck with Trump. They will vote with him on issues on which they agree, but they find both the substance and the style of his presidency too egregious not to criticize and oppose publicly. Most of them also refused to vote for him for president. This group includes Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake; former Presidents George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush; and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Senator Bob Corker is a late convert to the cause.
The two most visible standard-bearers of the ambivalent Republicans are the two GOP leaders in Congress: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Ryan’s hangdog attempts to divert questions about Trump have become a genre unto themselves, as he simply tries to act as though the president’s Twitter feed doesn’t exist, blasting whatever Trump happens to be thinking to the world. McConnell has been more direct, repeatedly and explicitly expressing his displeasure with Trump’s tweeting, which he feels is a distraction. Yet even though the president spent a solid chunk of the summer publicly berating him, McConnell continues to work with Trump, keeping his eye on the ball of tax cuts. It’s not that Ryan and McConnell don’t have political differences with Trump—they are ideological conservatives, whereas he is at best an instinctive one—nor that they approve of his crassness. They do, however, see plenty of common ground.
Last week, Flake plaintively called on more of his Republican colleagues to denounce Trump, but it’s not that difficult to see why they haven’t. Like Kelly, they may be offended by Trump’s lack of discipline or by the things that come out of his mouth and his tweets. But when it comes down to substance, they see in Trump a man who’s championing the causes they support.