The notion of the three retired generals surrounding Donald Trump―National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Chief of Staff John Kelly―protecting Americans from an unstable, impulsive demagogue who might create global catastrophe has been around almost as long as the Trump presidency.
The narrative, which posits that these individuals are privately more moderate and responsible, has been bandied about by pundits, reporters and other observers. For many in the public it’s been something to feel mildly hopeful about, no doubt.
But in the case of John Kelly it never quite fit. And now, in the aftermath of the week-long controversy over Trump’s call to the widow of a soldier killed in an ambush in Niger―a story in which Kelly emerged to defend Trump and make false statements―it’s clear the narrative regarding Kelly has always been absolutely incorrect.
While Mattis, for example, successfully, quietly lobbied Republican members of Congress not to ban medically-necessary treatments for transgender servicemembers―and was reportedly angered by Trump’s decision later to ban transgender people entirely from the military without even consulting him―Kelly, early on, as head of the Department Homeland Security (DHS), showed himself to be a loyal foot soldier in carrying out the agenda of then White House advisor Steve Bannon and others in the White House.
Kelly moved quickly with the plan for mass deportations that Trump envisioned and which too many believed would never happen, turning DHS into a “deportation machine.” He expressed his belief that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was unconstitutional―something refuted by many legal experts―and clearly influenced Trump to end DACA and irresponsibly put the fate of millions of young people who grew up in this country in the hands of a dysfunctional Congress. And regarding Trump’s Muslim ban, while believing he should have “slowed it down,” regretting the rollout of the first ban (which Bannon spearheaded), Kelly nonetheless defended it as “constitutional” and “necessary,” later claiming an “unprecedented spike in terrorist travel” which he didn’t quantify.
What falsely cast Kelly in a more moderate, restraining light for much of the media, particularly as he moved on from DHS to the White House at the very end of July, was both the fact that he was a military man who might discipline Trump (which never did happen), and the fact that he’s credited with helping to purge Bannon from the White House.
But perhaps too much was read into the latter action or at least the motivation for it.
Bannon was a disruptive force in the White House, and he was incompetent, as his clumsy Muslim ban push, without proper vetting, proved from day one. But ideologically he and Kelly are clearly in the same place on immigration. Bannon wants undocumented immigrants thrown out of the country and wants Muslims banned from it. Kelly, judging by his zealous enforcement of Trump’s policies― put in place by Bannon―agrees. Kelly, however, was much more experienced and efficient at carrying out hostile action against immigrants while also keeping it as below-the-radar as possible.
It becomes easier to believe that Kelly wanted Bannon, and the equally disruptive and show-boating Sebastian Gorka―who’d been accused of links to a Nazi group in Europe, and whom Kelly also reportedly booted―out of the White House more so because of their lack of discipline and their attention-seeking than because of their ideology. Kelly has, after all, shown no compunction to purge the more low-key but nonetheless equally extreme white nationalist Stephen Miller from the White House.
But here’s the funny thing about ideology: Even the most disciplined are bound to expose themselves in a highly-charged, angry moment, because the sheer force of it is so strong.
Kelly admitted he was “stunned” to see Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson discuss the contents of a condolence call from Trump to the wife of Sgt. La David T. Johnson―contents which he nonetheless confirmed were true. He was angry, and that was clear by both his passion to come into the White House press briefing room (while rarely giving interviews) and his steadfast desire to engage in character assassination against Rep. Wilson.
But Kelly, driven by rage, didn’t check his facts.
And his recollection of Wilson’s speech at a dedication for a new FBI building in Miami in 2015 ― a false memory ― shows he saw in this black female politician a braggart and an “empty barrel” who’d done little for the community and who was all about promoting herself. The video of the 2015 event of course revealed that she didn’t brag about getting the money for the building, as Kelly had claimed. She wasn’t even in Congress at the time the money was allocated, in 2009. In actuality, she lauded GOP members of Congress for helping her, at the behest of the FBI, to get the building named after two FBI agents who’d lost their lives and whose service, along with others, Wilson spent most of her nine minute speech talking about.
Any cursory reading up about Wilson, too, would have shown a woman dedicated to the community she represents in Miami, including spearheading a successful mentoring program for youth through which Sgt. Johnson came up.
Kelly stereotyped Wilson when he saw her speaking in 2015, in much the way that Bannon or Gorka or Miller or Trump might, tucking away a memory of her that simply wasn’t true. But it fit neatly into how Kelly likely views politicians ― as people who are not members of what he, by virtue of his comments about people who serve in the military, clearly defines as a military elite class ― and how he likely views black people and women.
And then, in a moment of anger, this false memory, put in place by stereotyping and bias, was triggered, and it drove even this most disciplined of military men to jump off the cliff of reason into the abyss of ugliness, innuendo and outright defamation without checking his facts.
Kelly also showed himself in that press briefing to have an authoritarian impulse, portraying the military as an institution not only to be revered, but to be obeyed. As Masha Gessen noted in the New Yorker, he spoke in the “language of a military coup.” (White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would give even more credence to that observation the following day when she told a reporter who pointed to Kelly’s false statements that it’s “highly inappropriate” to question “a four-star Marine general.”)
Perhaps most interesting is that even under Kelly’s watch―and Kelly is reportedly referred to by some White House staffers as the “church lady” who polices access to Trump―the president chats with Bannon on the phone several times a week.
Kelly may not speak publicly often, nor do so with the bravado, sarcasm and edge of Bannon. His tone and demeanor are, more often, certainly much lighter and softer. But, by both his actions at DHS and his words last week, it’s clear he’s not ideologically far off from Bannon, who certainly doesn’t want Trump to be restrained.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile