The Atlantic Politics Daily: John Kelly Has Something to Say

The former chief of staff wants to make the case that he spoke truth to power while inside the White House. Plus: Which U.S. presidents were the best writers?

It’s Thursday, February 13. In today’s newsletter: John Kelly speaks his mind about Trump. Plus: Which U.S. presidents were the best writers?



The retired four-star general, former White House chief of staff, and former secretary of homeland security let loose about his old boss during a speech at Drew University in New Jersey. Kelly called out the president’s retaliation against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, criticized Trump’s strategy on North Korea, questioned the president’s language about migrant families, and defended the press.

My colleague Peter Nicholas, our White House reporter, was in the room for the remarkable comments:

When Vindman heard the president tell Zelensky he wanted to see the Biden family investigated, that was tantamount to hearing “an illegal order,” Kelly said. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss.’”

Throughout the appearance, Kelly laid out his doubts about Trump’s policies. Trump has held two formal summits with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, hoping to scuttle the country’s nuclear program through personal diplomacy. Kelly said the effort was futile.

Kelly kept quiet for much of his tenure in the Trump administration, speaking more freely after he put some distance between him and the White House. But the criticism may be too little, too late, Peter writes, this latest unburdening convincing no Americans of anything new.

Kelly’s indictment of the president is also striking, given that many others in the military community have chosen to keep mum. (Military officials must weigh calling out what they see as unprecedented, destructive behavior, against preserving the apolitical nature of the military. Retired officers face the same calculus, as my colleagues Kathy Gilsinan and Leah Feiger reported in their piece on this slow-boil revolt.)

Call it the James Mattis rule: “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever,” the former secretary of defense told Jeff Goldberg last year.

Read the rest of Peter’s dispatch on the former chief of staff’s speech here.

—Christian Paz


When They Go Joe

Trump’s impeachment trial ended in acquittal and Joe Biden flopped in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Was there a point to Trump’s pushing for investigations into the Bidens?

“The president got himself impeached and wasted valuable time in the frantic pursuit of an also-ran,” David Graham argues. If Biden is knocked out of the primary, that will ultimately prove to be a hollow victory for Trump, who bears the stain of impeachment.



Which presidents were the best writers?

After leaving office, presidents write books, memoirs. Most of them were … mediocre. James Parker writes:

Books by presidents ... it’s a vexed and miscellaneous genre. The heavy buttocks of history sit upon it. Literature rarely has anything to do with it. So credit to Craig Fehrman for the compendiousness, readability, and general exuberance of his Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote.

There were arguably only three notable writers among them. The first is John Quincy Adams.


Today’s newsletter was written by Christian Paz, a fellow on the Politics desk, and edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

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