Sunday, March 18, 2018

John Kelly in hell

TRUMP WHITE House Chief of Staff John Kelly is said to have a predilection for Irish whiskey, once the sun has crossed the yardarm and the day’s work is done. It’s a fair surmise that the last eight months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have made that libation a regular event.

They may have rolled a keg of Tullamore Dew up to the service entrance at the White House last week. That was when Kelly was tweet-midwife to the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was cashiered by Trump in a tweet released early March 13, asTillerson returned from a trip to north Africa. According to different sources, the former Exxon Mobil CEO was on the can when he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who  called him on the phone.

Who could blame Kelly for his style of unwinding? It’s been a wild and rocky eight months, choked with intrigue and double-dealing. And then, of course, he had to deal with the president*.

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Since last July, the former Marine Corps general and head of the Department of Homeland Security has moved — some will say “lurched,” and they’re not wrong — from one crisis to another at the mercy of a relentlessly mercurial boss, plagued by noisy bad hires, intrusive Trump family members, and internecine squabbling that hasn’t stopped from either day one of his tenure or day one of the administration itself.

It’s all led him to say, on March 1, at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the agency he once directed, to say that “[t]he last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”

Was it just a burst of dark Irish wit, or something more? No matter, Kelly’s arc in the most functionally deficient White House in modern times may have less to do with Irish wit than with English drama.

Never mind the man in the Oval Office: John Francis Kelly is the most fascinating fixture of House Trump today, and, not quite coincidentally, the one most susceptible to Shakespearean analogy: a headstrong, brutally plain-spoken but presumably well-intentioned public servant tragically manipulated by — hoist on the petards of — duty, hubris, and the unstable leader he is unswervingly committed to serve.

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WHEN KELLY took over on July 31 as chief of staff, in the wake of Reince Priebus’ untimely departure, sighs of relief spread all over Washington. Finally, the thinking went, the Trump White House would be subject to some adult supervision. Kelly, whose stellar Marine career was no doubt a big selling point in his selection to begin with, sure as hell looked the part: ramrod-straight, with a steely, no-nonsense gaze, an unfiltered vocabulary and a personal bearing straight outta Central Casting.

Early signs were promising. The day Kelly started the job, he fired showboat White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci after Scaramucci’s infamously profane interview with The New Yorker.

Kelly cut former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski from the herd, denying him “badge access” to the White House. At year’s end, he fired the deeply loathed director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose prickly self-importance had been rubbing White House staff the wrong way for months. She was cashiered specifically for using the White House car service as a delivery service, forbidden by the federal government.

Since then, however, the former general has been a party to the circling of the drain that’s been underway at the Trump White House since he started. As Tillerson’s firing shows, Trump is answerable to no one on matters of personnel. Not even the man charged with marrying personnel, policy and public persona within the White House. John Kelly.

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TO THE PUBLIC at large, the job of White House chief of staff is a somewhat mysterious one. Part president whisperer, part administration megaphone, the job has requirements that seem to have a lot to do with deciding presidential access. The job title itself — “chief of staff” — suggests a kind of White House air traffic controller, the one with go-no go authority over who lands at Oval Office Airport and who doesn’t.

It’s also true that the chief of staff is often meant to act in unpleasant roles, a Son of a Bitch in Chief, kicking asses and taking names when the need arises (and it always does). In this, by any measure, John Kelly has done exceedingly well.

But Kelly faced (and faces) the singular challenge of trying to manage the unmanageable, attempting to restore order and establish decorum and discipline in a White House whose prime occupant — loathe to any influence but his own — is more problem than solution.

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“It’s almost mission impossible here for a lot of different reasons,” said historian Chris Whipple to Politico. “His credibility was already really seriously damaged going all the way back to his appearance behind the podium in the WH briefing room. Now I think his credibility is really beyond repair and moreover, very few people will really believe he’s really speaking for the president.”

A slight rejoinder to Whipple’s assessment: With 14 months of presidential style in the public eye, and a presidential campaign before that, it’s safe to say no one ever really thought Kelly speaks for the president, any more than Priebus or Lewandowski did.

With Twitter as his megaphone of choice, Trump has weaponized White House public discourse like no president before him. His late-night/early-morning tweets have contributed to the polarization of the country, and point to Trump as a loose cannon who revels in that status, regardless of the consequences. Kelly is enduring some of those consequences himself.

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NOT THAT Kelly hasn’t put his foot in it himself from time to time. On Oct. 19, he wrongly asserted that Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson took the credit for federal funding required to build a new FBI field office in Miami in 2015. Despite a statement of reprimand released by 17 female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kelly doubled down, saying he would not apologize for his claims against Wilson.

“Not only was Kelly's claim false but his manner was rude, degrading, and racist,” wrote the activists at, which circulated a petition demanding Kelly apologize to the congresswoman.

That arose from another dispute with Wilson, one in which Kelly defended the tone and context of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 7 with three other American soldiers in southwestern Niger, in an ambush by Islamist militants. Wilson, a Johnson family friend, listened in on the call, which upset Kelly to no end. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Kelly said, as reported by The New York Times.

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And Kelly played footsie with the media when asked about information that suggested Johnson survived the initial assault, but had died some time later. “I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you,” he said on Oct. 19, indicating the ability to be as tone-deaf about White House optics as his boss.

In early February, Kelly drew the ire of advocates of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, among millions of other Americans, when he referred to some immigrants as “lazy" while visiting the Capitol.

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly said, as reported in The Hill. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

Nice. Stay classy, general.

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It gets uglier. An October piece by Jon Schwarz in The Intercept explores the ways that Kelly, seemingly the sane one in the loony rooms of House Trump, has his own fairly recent history of, and relationship with, the irrational and the xenophobic.

“Any examination of Kelly’s past public remarks makes clear he is not a sober professional, calculating that he must degrade himself in public so he can remain in place to rein in Trump’s worst instincts behind the scenes. Rather, Kelly honestly shares those instincts: He’s proudly ignorant, he’s a liar, and he’s a shameless bully and demagogue.”

He may be subject to situational blindness, too. Witness the Rob Porter incident. Porter, formerly the White House staff secretary, resigned Feb. 7 amid highly credible allegations of domestic abuse of his first ex-wife, allegations documented in a story in The Daily Mail that included a photograph of the ex-wife with a black eye. Responding to the allegations, Kelly initially accepted Porter’s denial about what happened, siding with Porter in a reflex that was as good-old-boy as they get. Porter, Kelly said, was a "man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”

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THEN HE GOT called on it. Politico reported: “Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail story that Porter’s background check had turned up red flags — though not the full extent of the abuse — but Porter never rose to the top of his list of problems to deal with.”

Kelly seemed to masterfully pivot from the Porter mess on Feb. 16, when he issued a five-page memo to staff outlining a series of changes in the White House security clearance process, one that saw top-secret access revoked for some, even though at that time others in the House Trump food chain were exempt, including senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to The Washington Post, Kushner’s had more asks for classified intelligence than anyone else on the White House staff, except National Security Council staff.

“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted -- especially those who work closely with the President or handle sensitive national security information," Kelly wrote. "We should -- and in the future, must -- do better.”

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On Feb. 27, Kelly pulled the trigger. He restored more of his credibility, specifically sidelining Kushner, Kelly’s West Wing bĂȘte noire from the start, by downgrading his White House interim security clearance, which, up to that point, made him privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive, most important intel.

It was at least a public return to form for Kelly. But even with that action, which many believe came months too late, Kelly acted with what appeared to be a gun to his head — acting to short-leash Kushner as a concession to a growing chorus of complaints from White House staffers, other Republicans, intelligence specialists, and the media — and to the principle of nation over presidential preference (since Trump would no doubt have preferred to keep things the way they were).

Kushner’s inner-circle ouster can be seen as a short-term situational response to crisis, one that reflects Kelly’s capabilities being yoked, or chained, to public reactions to the man he serves. It’s the kind of temporal, how’d-we-do-today operational posture that a fully capable chief of staff doesn’t need or want.

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IT’S THOUGHT that Kelly continues in the chief of staff gig out of a sense of duty, but duty to who or what? If it’s duty to the president, Kelly’s undiminished loyalty is subject to the unpredictable moods of that president, a man with no discernible filter for his thoughts and beliefs — and a willingness to act on impulse regardless of the potential for embarrassment or disaster.

If it’s duty to country — a duty clearly reflected in a long and exemplary military career — Kelly remaining in the job would suggest he thinks he’s the only one who can do it. Many professionals have unwisely endured in jobs they were better than, working for bosses they were better than.

Kelly’s allegiance to the White House as national institution is obvious, and admirable. But over the eight months of his time as chief of staff, it comes as the country’s needs are subordinated to the actionable whims and grudges of the nation's chief executive. It is an imbalance Kelly aids and abets.

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Jon Schwarz, writing in October in The Intercept, suggests that Kelly may not even care. “Kelly may be personally far more palatable; he’s certainly no mewling coward like Trump and has unquestionably put his life where his mouth is,” Schwarz writes. “But there’s a reason these two men found each other. They see the world in fundamentally the same way, and Kelly is going to help Trump do what he wants to it.”

Well, maybe, maybe not. The notion that Kelly and Trump share the same world view presupposes at least a similarity of life experience and encounters that would make that possible. Kelly, the son of a postal worker, comes to the White House after a lifetime of service to his country. Trump, son of a millionaire, attained the White House after a lifetime of anything but service to his country. Where’s the common ground for sharing the same view of the world?

Shared world views are fine, whatever they might be, but Kelly’s in the White House largely because he’s the best current option for the job, a reasonably gifted administrator and a loyal Republican with the patina of top-shelf military service. In a White House caught up in daily crisis, hemorrhaging staff members by the day and the week, those strategic, diversionary qualifications might well have been enough for him to make sure the train wrecks run on time.

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BUT A LOT’S gone down since October. There’s reason to suspect that Trump & Kelly isn’t the match made in heaven it was first believed. In recent days and weeks, and well before Kushner got kneecapped, news reports were floated hinting that Trump, ever the chaos enthusiast, might tap House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California to replace Kelly who’s replaced Priebus.

McCarthy respectfully declined and denied. Of course. “Look, there is no opening,” he said Feb. 14 on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program, as reported by The Hill. “I think General Kelly is an amazing person. I watched what he’s been able to do with this White House, put structure to it, and I think those hypotheticals are not healthy in any shape or form.”

But still, you wonder. Who’d have the stones and the clout to float a rumor like that? This had orange fingerprints all over it.

Given Trump’s tempestuous history with hiring and firing — there’s been talk of Trump jettisoning national security adviser H.R. McMaster for weeks — it’s still possible Kelly may not be around the White House to help Trump have his way with the world. Or he will. We'll have to see which side of the bed The Donald gets out of tomorrow.

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And that’s the big problem John Kelly’s going to have to deal with from here on in: The institutionalization of instability. An atmosphere contrary to the discipline and loyalty that have shaped and animated his professional life, and despite his best intentions. What one former politico called “normalized chaos.” The job Kelly signed on for is shifting under his feet.

His role as Trump lightning rod and spark plug has lately become a role of the White House HR Department’s Messenger of Bad News, an administrator defined as much by the people he’s fired as the people he’s managed to retain. His professional, militarily cultivated bias for action has been compromised by his boss’ bias for ... tweets.

Kelly can’t alter the two immutables of his position: The boss he serves and the chaos that boss reveres. Tillerson’s dismissal proved the degree to which chaos is the operational North Star, the order of the day, at the Trump White House. The longer Kelly stays, the more deeply he embeds himself in chaos he is barely in a position to contain, scarcely in a position to control, and in no position to change. How long he can or will put up with all that is anyone’s guess.

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HIS LOYALTY to the nation is undeniable. His loyalty to the president is, or may be, circumstantial. For the chief of staff of a historically beleaguered White House, another question looms: What loyalty does he have to himself — and his biography?

Since taking over one of the more thankless roles in American government, John Kelly has been admirably performing the role of the loyalist. Up to now, he’s been doing the full Nathan Jessup and doing it pretty well. He deeply believes we need him on that Rose Garden wall. And only him.

What’s still to be seen is how long he’s prepared to share that wall with Humpty Dumpty.

Image credits: Kelly top: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images. Kelly at news conference: via Scaramucci: via TheWrap. Lewandowski: Fox News. Myeshia Johnson: WPLC via The Associated Press. Kelly and Rob Porter: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images. Kushner: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post. The Intercept logo: © 2018 First Look Media. Kevin McCarthy: via Bloomberg. Jack Nicholson as Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men (1992).

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