White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly is, in so many ways, a chief of staff right out of central casting. He’s stoic, calm, and rarely off-script — all qualities that have garnered him glowing coverage in the months since he took over the job from Reince Priebus.
Two days after Kelly was hired, New York Magazine ran a story praising the general’s early work, writing, “When President Trump fired Reince Priebus and hired John Kelly to take over as his chief of staff, it was with the expectation that the retired Marine four-star general, known to be a hard-ass, would institute some much-needed order to the carnival that took over the West Wing in January. After 48 hours on the job, he appears to have had some success.”
The sentiment was echoed across the media. “Anthony Scaramucci’s Ouster May Show That John Kelly Has the Rare Ability to Rein in Trump,” The New Yorker trumpeted, while The New York Times celebrated, “John Kelly Quickly Moves to Impose Military Discipline on White House.”
It quickly became clear that Kelly wasn’t going to rein in Trump as some had suggested, but the sense that Kelly was above it all has persisted. When Trump went off the rails after Charlottesville, a video of Kelly reacting to the remarks went viral, and the notion of Kelly as the “grown-up in the room” has carried on.
WATCH: White House chief of staff John Kelly reacts to President Trump’s latest remarks on violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. pic.twitter.com/O9gwSCxwp8
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 16, 2017
In recent days, that image has began to crack, to the horror of some in media and politics. Last week, The Times ran a story headlined, “Pitched as Calming Force, John Kelly Instead Mirrors Boss’s Priorities.” Two days earlier, The Washington Post wrote simply, “We’re down to Mattis, I suppose.”
But that shock is misplaced. Kelly’s racist, ruthless history in both politics and the military make it clear the general was always going to be perfect as Trump’s right hand man.
The breakdown began late last month, when the general jumped into a feud Trump was having with Gold Star Widow Myeshia Johnson and Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). Kelly defended the president and lashed out at Wilson, apparently making up a story about a speech the congresswoman gave at the FBI headquarters in 2015.
Kelly’s image seemed to fully crumble Monday night. In the Trump era, high level officials praising the Confederacy is basically par for the course, but Kelly was supposed to be above that sort of talk.
On the inaugural episode of noted racist Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, Ingraham Angle, Kelly said a “lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
“The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” Kelly told Ingraham.
Kelly also praised Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, calling him an “honorable man.”
Any eighth grade U.S. history teacher would, of course, remind you of a little thing called the Three-Fifths Compromise, an agreement between the northern and southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for population purposes, which was meant to appease both sides. The Civil War broke out years later in 1861, despite the ugly compromise.
Kelly’s comments sent shock waves across the political spectrum on Monday night, but the reality is that it probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising.
When Trump nominated Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Center for Constitutional Rights released a scathing statement about Kelly’s time as the head of Guantanamo, saying his service at the detainment facility was proof he was unfit for the job.
“General Kelly’s aggressive oversight of the illegal military prison at Guantánamo Bay disqualifies him to head the Department of Homeland Security,” the organization said in a statement. “Presiding over a population of detainees not charged or convicted of crimes, over whom he had maximum custodial control, Kelly treated them with brutality.”
Particularly disturbing, the group said, was Kelly’s reaction to a hunger strike at the prison in 2013.
In a testimony to Congress in March 2013, Kelly admitted that some inmates had gone on a hunger strike, but, Kelly said, they “present themselves daily, calmly, in a totally cooperative way, to be fed through a tube.”
But the situation escalated, and guards cracked down in April, apparently choosing to enforce a policy of keeping striking prisoners away from communal areas. When some prisoners resisted, violence broke out.
Guards under Kelly’s command fired rubber bullets to control the prisoners who were peacefully protesting. The Guardian reported at the time that prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs and were left face down on the floor for six hours, clothes soaked with pepper spray.
The guards at Guantanamo are also known to have tortured their prisoners, and the detainment center is considered to be a violation of international human rights by Amnesty International, as many prisoners are being detained there indefinitely without trial. Nonetheless, Kelly opposed President Obama’s attempts to close the camp.
Kelly’s time running the camp made him a perfect pick to head up Trump’s DHS, especially since Trump himself has expressed sympathy for torturers.
In January, Trump falsely claimed that waterboarding “absolutely” works; when he nominated Kelly for the lead DHS position, the general swore to end “political correctness” in U.S. national security. The Center for Constitutional Rights called the remark a “thinly veiled endorsement of policies and practices that are illegal and immoral, including torture and racial and religious profiling.”
Kelly, of course, was confirmed anyway.
During his short time at DHS, Kelly also instituted and enforced Trump’s “Muslim bans”, which he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee would “make America safe” after a court blocked the executive order.
“These are countries that are either unable or unwilling to help us validate the identities and backgrounds of persons within their borders,” Kelly said. “Bottom line, I have been enjoined from doing these things that I know would make America safe, and I anxiously await the court to complete its action, one way or the other, so I can get to work.”
As DHS secretary, Kelly similarly supported misguided, law enforcement-focused drug war tactics.
“The solution is a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill,” Kelly said during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press in April. “And then rehabilitation, and then law enforcement, and then getting at the poppy fields and the coca fields in the south.”
Drug policy and public health experts alike say there’s a better route: public health strategies and legalization. Kelly’s plan to stop heroin at its origin is particularly apt to go awry, they say.
“These are areas with no government presence. There are no farm-to-market roads, no land titles, no real economy,” Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America told ThinkProgress in April. “Forced eradication, the police fly over, come through and pull up the plants, and leave nothing behind? People just replant very quickly, because they have no other options.”
Kelly’s drug war also reeks of Trump-like xenophobia.
“I certainly think a border wall is essential, as do almost everyone who lives on the border,” Kelly told CBS in April. “So yes, I think it’s certainly worth hard negotiations over. We have tremendous threats, whether it’s drugs, people, potential terrorists coming up from the south.”
It would be an understatement to call the Trump era chaotic, and Republicans and Democrats alike crave a Trump crony who the president respects, who can keep Trump’s finger off the nuclear button and the Twitter icon. But Kelly’s not that person. He’s just as much of a racist, fear-mongering, Blue-Lives-Mattering strongman as everyone else surrounding Trump.
The desire to have someone respectable in the Oval Office is understandable, but to expect Kelly to play the role is misguided.