It came as no surprise to me earlier this month when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly offered his full-throated support to Rob Porter, a White House aide, who was accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. “I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said in his first public statement following the published allegations. “He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
While those unfamiliar with military justice may be shocked to see Kelly, a retired four-star general, publicly defend Porter as “a man of true integrity and honor,” it is sadly and wholly consistent with my experiences as a career Air Force JAG officer. Kelly’s defense of Porter is rooted in a military culture that too often values loyalty to cronies more than justice for their victims. During my time as a defense counsel, prosecutor, and judge in the military, I witnessed countless people like John Kelly and their negative impact on the fair administration of justice.
The military’s pride in intraservice loyalty is understandable. Faithfulness to “team” and devotion to “team members” allow the institution to thrive under the most challenging of circumstances. In battle every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine must be able to count on his or her brothers and sisters in arms. However, this virtue becomes a vice when it is blindly given outside the battlefield, and in particular when it concerns allegations of criminal misconduct. (It’s worth noting that Kelly issued a second statement after photos were published of Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, with a black eye. Expressing his “shock,” Kelly said he nevertheless stood by “previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know.”)