Two months ago, after President Donald Trump praised a mob of white supremacists who inundated Charlottesville, VA, nearly everyone in Trump’s orbit, including his recently-promoted chief of staff John Kelly, let it be known to reporters, through private channels, that they were livid with Trump.
There was a particular fascination at the time with the sentiments of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and economic adviser Gary Cohn, both of whom are Jewish, but we were also told, to quote one representative story, that Kelly was “frustrated and dismayed.”
Back then the conventional wisdom held that Kelly’s unspoken objections to Trump’s conduct were sincere, but that Kelly was honor-bound to keep his mouth shut and continue the thankless work of stabilizing Trump’s chaotic administration.
Today it is abundantly clear that both halves of this story were heavily spun deceptions, meant to protect Kelly’s reputation from the stain of open association with modern-day secessionists, Nazis, and Trump’s general vulgarity. There is abundant evidence that Kelly deploys his years of military service cynically, to cloak bad actions and unsavory views with an artifice of patriotism and bravery, but almost none to suggest he has brought order to the Trump administration, or privately finds Trump’s racist outbursts objectionable. To the contrary, he appears to identify with them personally.
On Monday night, in an interview with noted charlatan Laura Ingraham, Kelly repurposed Trump’s response to the Charlottesville incident—“very fine people on both sides”—into a summary of the Civil War. “Men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” Kelly said, chalking up the outbreak of a full-scale war to end slavery to “the lack of ability to compromise.”
It is dissonant to spell out the fact that a decorated officer would praise the commanders of an enemy army, but it is not uncommon in the United States, where several military instillations are named after confederate generals, and the losing side was given pride of place in historical memory for about 100 years. Had Kelly not hoodwinked his profilers, we would not be surprised at all to learn that men who serve figures like Trump typically see things the way Trump does.
It is long forgotten, because six months was an eternity ago, but Trump very recently insisted Andrew Jackson was alive in 1861 and had been very upset about the outbreak of hostilities—he was “really angery that he saw what was happening, with regard to the Civil War,” Trump pontificated. “He said there’s no reason for this.” Jackson was a dealmaker who could’ve averted war through compromise.
Humiliated by the ensuing mockery of his ignorance (Jackson had been dead for more than a decade when Abraham Lincoln became president) Trump pretended he knew better all along, but corrected only the ahistoric biographical detail.
President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
His confederacy-sympathizing “analysis” remained constant. Very fine people on both sides, driven to war by a failure of leadership. Kelly may have been told this story in his youth, and even today, Civil War teaching lags the historical consensus. But it’s just not credible to assume Kelly has never encountered or had to grapple with the narrative that the bad guys rebelled and the good guys won.
At the time, John Kelly was Trump’s Homeland Security secretary. He saw Trump play up the reasonableness of secessionists and then accepted a promotion from him, to a job that, at the very least, requires him to treat Trump’s offenses as inoffensive. It turns out he sees them as clumsy executions of important work.
Kelly, no less blatantly than Trump, tries to deceive the public to advance political ends. There is video evidence documenting the fact that he defamed a black U.S. congresswoman, either to help Trump duck a different lie he told about Barack Obama and other former presidents, or to help Trump duck responsibility for an ambush that killed four Army commandos in Niger, or as a nonspecific MAGA primal scream. Perhaps it was some combination of the three. Confronted publicly for the first time with his own deception last night, he proudly refused to apologize and stood by the lie.
At his most recent press conference, Kelly condescended to civilians as deprived second class, and fielded questions only from members or friends Gold Star families. But Kelly glorifies of service veterans in this way—in situations unconnected to their actual service—as a political shield. Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is a service veteran, but Kelly is helping Trump lay the groundwork for either cutting Mueller’s Russia investigation short, or ending it altogether, to help his draft-dodging boss get away with crimes.
Kelly, unlike Trump, isn’t a frivolous man. It’s not genuflecting to him or to military service in general to say he could not have built the career he built if he weren’t a considered person, poised, possessed of critical thinking, if not exemplary values. But there is no reading of world history, let alone of this administration, that says decades of military service confers decency and integrity permanently on all who retire with distinction. Michael Flynn is a retired lieutenant general. Curtis Lemay was a four-star general. Some of the worst people in American history were Confederate generals.
When Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as Trump’s chief of staff, we were told to expect Kelly to impose order on a chaotic West Wing, and thus, perhaps, to see the Trump administration become more disciplined. He has instead presided over the same level of chaos, with added doses of culture war and policy disaster layered on top. Bracketing his public conduct, unbiased critics would say he is at best a replacement-level chief of staff. Accounting for his public conduct, we must allow that he thinks he’s making huge backward strides, to a time when things were “sacred,” for the good of the country. He convinced the press that he’s a faithful steward of constitutional values, balancing the need to follow bad orders with the need to keep the government on the rails. It’s worth asking how he laundered himself so successfully. He is a faithful steward of values, alright—they’re just Trump’s values.