Yet Kelly’s tenure also saw Trump’s galling flip-flop about a white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia; a White House feud with a Gold Star widow; the bungling of domestic-abuse allegations against then–Staff Secretary Rob Porter; the Helsinki debacle; and several other lowlights.
Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, was one of several ex-military men who joined the administration early on, initially as secretary of homeland security. But when Priebus was forced out of office as part of a civil war inside the White House, Kelly was drafted to take over its internal operations.
The initial read on Kelly was that he might be able to bring some discipline to a West Wing that had struggled at nearly everything except backstabbing. With his no-nonsense demeanor and military résumé, Kelly was portrayed as the anti-Trump.
Matters got off to a rough start with the march in Charlottesville, where one woman was killed. The president waffled, first decrying violence “on many sides,” then walking that back, then walking back the walk-back in a bizarre press conference. But in the aftermath, Kelly was able to force out the strategist Steve Bannon, who was a major source of infighting as well as press leaks.
John Kelly is a loyal Trumpist after all
The essential moment for understanding Kelly came in October 2017. After several American soldiers were killed in a raid in Niger, Trump used the occasion to attack former President Barack Obama’s handling of condolence letters for slain service members. Trump cited the combat death of Kelly’s own son, an event the retired general had avoided discussing publicly. Some pundits expected Kelly to rebuke Trump. Instead, Kelly staunchly defended him. He also attacked Representative Frederica Wilson, who had provided a damning account of Trump’s phone call to Myeisha Johnson, the widow of slain Sergeant La David Johnson. When video evidence debunked Kelly’s attack on Wilson, the White House said that it was inappropriate to question the chief of staff, because he is a veteran. A few days later, Kelly offered a historically illiterate and politically charged defense of Robert E. Lee on Fox News.
The episode also showed that the gulf between Kelly and Trump wasn’t as large as many analysts had assumed. Kelly was always a Trumpist in ideology—reflexively nostalgic for the past, committed to old-fashioned gender roles, skeptical of cultural change, and strongly anti-immigration. The difference between the men was largely about style and approach, not substance.
Kelly’s stewardship followed, loosely, the template set by James Baker, the acknowledged greatest White House chief of staff, who served under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Kelly worked to control the flow of both paper and people to the Oval Office, seeking to reduce the access of advisers who offered Trump bad information, got him riled up, or simply distracted him from his work.