Only a few weeks ago, Kelly reportedly torpedoed a deal between Trump and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to extend DACA. After a productive meeting between Schumer and the president, Kelly called Schumer and informed him that the deal was insufficiently tough on immigration, eventually leading to a brief government shutdown.
It seems as if scales are falling from some eyes in Washington, allowing them to see Kelly more clearly—just the same arc of meteoric rise followed by disillusionment that Porter followed. When Kelly was moved to the White House in July, at the time of the political murder-suicide of Reince Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci, he was hailed as the “adult in the room.” With his military background and baseline competence, this was true—but, as it turned out, this was more of a commentary on what came before. Adoring press coverage portrayed Kelly as a patriot who was taking on an impossible job with an impossible president out of love of country and out of desire to protect the nation from its own president.
It quickly became clear, however, as I wrote in October, that Kelly is a true Trumpist. Early on, he was caught on film appearing to grimace as Trump offered aid and comfort to white supremacists; it didn’t take too long for it to become clear that this was just Kelly’s default facial expression, and he had no compunctions about the president’s actual comments.
In October, Trump was slow to speak about the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Niger, only delivered condolences in a delayed fashion, and then inexplicably got into a feud with the widow of one soldier. The president then crassly invoked Kelly’s son’s death in action, and much of the press—still convinced Kelly was a moderate voice of reason in the White House—waited anxiously for the chief of staff to set the president right.
Instead, Kelly came out and staunchly defended Trump. In the process, he escalated a feud with Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida, a black woman, telling an anecdote that portrayed her in a negative light and calling her an “empty barrel.” (This was the same occasion on which he lamented that women were no longer sacred.) Video proved that Kelly’s attack was false, but the White House refused to acknowledge as much. Sanders scolded reporters, “If you want to get into debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is highly inappropriate,” a chilling suggestion that military officers (even retired ones like Kelly) are above criticism, and one that foreshadowed Trump’s more recent accusation of “treason” against congressional Democrats who didn’t applaud his State of the Union address. Kelly also defended Robert E. Lee, who led a treasonous armed revolt against the United States, as an “honorable man.”
Leon Panetta, the Washington wiseman and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, had advised Kelly early on, but in late October, he said, “John is a great Marine … but he is not a politician, and one thing he lacks is the ability to look at the big political picture and understand what you should and shouldn’t say as chief of staff.”