The Downsides of John Kelly’s Ascension

August1, 2017

Enter John Kelly –Trump’s Chief of Staff

The Downsides of John Kelly’s Ascension

by Eliot A. Cohen

It’s not a signal that the President is preparing to moderate his White House—it’s a signal he’s going to the mattresses.

Image result for New Chief of Staff John Kelly

The White House Chief of Staff Gen (rtd) John Kelly–Will he survive under Donald J. Trump?

Donald Trump is not much of a man. He feels sorry for himself, he whines, he gropes women; he bullies the weak. He brags and he lies. As a young man, this self-proclaimed athlete collected five draft deferments rather than wear his country’s uniform. He doesn’t even work out. The motto emblazoned on Trump’s bogus coat of arms should probably be “faithless,” which makes it odd that he has picked as his chief of staff a general steeled in a service whose motto is “ever faithful.” (The Trump coat of arms was reportedly lifted from another family, with the motto “integrity” replaced—inevitably—by “Trump.”)

John Kelly, retired Marine four-star General and new White House Chief of Staff, has been throughout his career everything Trump is not: He has endured more than Trump could imagine, and has displayed virtues that Trump may not understand and certainly has not exhibited, among them candor, courage, and discipline. Which is why some observers have welcomed Kelly’s hiring as evidence that perhaps the president is learning, that maybe now we will have a disciplined White House that will focus on the business of public policy. Maybe the early morning tweets will diminish or even stop.

Image result for America's Demagogue Donald J. TrumpThe 45th POTUS Donald J. Trump


Trump’s pick of Kelly is probably better understood in a broader and darker context. That includes a speech that he gave the same day to New York’s Suffolk County Police Department calling on cops to bang suspects’ heads into squad cars; the brusque, uncoordinated dismissal of transgender service personnel by presidential tweet; a speech a week earlier at the commissioning of USS Gerald R. Ford urging sailors to lobby their representatives; a harangue to 30,000 Boy Scouts that included a rant about loyalty, and that earned him an astonishing rebuke from the head of the Boy Scouts of America; and a longer history of toying around the edge of inciting violence, to include the assassination of his opponent in the last election.

Image result for The Mooch

The Mooch was summarily removed from The White House

As the coils of the Russia investigation grow tighter, as his failures in Congress mount, Trump reaches for what he knows—demagoguery of the rawest sort. He reaches as well for what he thinks of as his base, which includes (he believes) the military, many of whose leaders are actually quietly appalled by what he represents. He has picked Kelly not because of his political or administrative skills but because he thinks of him as a “killer”—a term of praise in his lexicon, which is why he likes referring to his Secretary of Defense as “Mad Dog” Mattis, a nickname the former general rejects. Kelly will not organize Goon Squads for Trump, but the President would probably not mind if he did. More to the point, Kelly’s selection, and that of a foul-mouthed financier from New York as Trump’s Communications Director, tells us not that Trump is planning on moderating his behavior, but rather on going to the mattresses. He just may have picked the wrong guy for that mission, that’s all.

Kelly’s decision to take the job lends itself to multiple explanations. It may be an irresistible call to duty by someone who thinks of the President mainly as Commander-in-Chief; it may be an act of deep, quiet patriotism by someone who intends to shield the country from Trump’s lawless worst; it may reflect personal ambition, or mere hankering for as difficult a management challenge as one could imagine; or it may reflect a sneaking admiration for the boorish businessman who has successfully slapped around the politicians of left and right that many officers, and Marines in particular, despise as cowardly and corrupt. Kelly once handed a ceremonial saber to the President while  suggesting that he use it on the press. In April, he said the following: “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.’’ A less supine Congress might have noticed the discourtesy and reacted sharply to being told to “shut up.”

His occasionally contemptuous attitude towards the press and Congress, though, is only one reason why it is highly unlikely that Kelly will succeed. Trump will remain Trump, and the various denizens of the White House are unlikely to treat Kelly with much more deference than they treat one another. He will discover that he is no longer a general, or even a cabinet secretary, but a political functionary—neither more nor less.

There was a reason why he spent 42 years on active duty rather than run for mayor of Boston. He probably already knows, but if not he will soon learn, that he will be as dispensable as his predecessor, that Trump hates any of his subordinates being too powerful or too visible. And worst of all, he will soon find himself wrestling with the moral corruption that being close to this man entails. You cannot work directly for Trump while adhering to a code of honesty, integrity, and lawfulness. Sooner or later Kelly will have to defend the White House’s jabber about “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “witch hunts.” He will have to ascribe to Trump virtues that he does not possess, and deny the moral lapses and quite possibly the crimes that he has committed.

There is one further reason to find this appointment depressing. It contributes to the continuing decay of American civil-military relations. Those of us who were relieved to see James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, H. R. McMaster as National Security Adviser, and Kelly himself as Secretary of Homeland Security, felt that way partly out of appreciation for the virtues of all three men, but also, very largely, out of relief that their sanity might contain their boss’s craziness. But it is inappropriate to have so many generals in policy-making positions; it is profoundly wrong to have a president regard the military as a constituency, and it is corrupting to have the Republican Party, such as it is, act as though generals have if not a monopoly then at least dominant market share in the qualities of executive ability and patriotism. It is unwise to have higher-level positions in the hands of officials who have openly expressed disdain for Congress—now a dangerously weak branch of government.

Trump, who has no idea how many articles there are in the Constitution, neither knows nor cares about any of the niceties of civil-military relations. To their credit, Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster have thought long and hard about these issues. But like any of us they have their individual limitations, and like any of us, their characters can be eroded by the whirlpool of moral and political corruption that is Donald Trump. The Marines live by a hard code, and John Kelly has endured tests of character more difficult than most of us can conceive. But his hardest tests lie ahead, and neither he nor anyone else can be sure that he will pass them.

6 thoughts on “The Downsides of John Kelly’s Ascension

  1. Washington talking heads are falling all over themselves to describe how the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, might bring some order to a chaotic, dysfunctional and failing presidency. It’s my strong belief that John Kelly is the wrong person for the wrong job for the wrong president.

    Kelly, a retired general with a reputation as a straight shooter lacks the skills for this powerful post, which is the consummate political job, not a command-and-control managerial task. It requires keen political sensitivities about policy priorities, Congress, the administration and bureaucracy, the party, interest groups and the voters. And a president who wants to govern. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that all the warring White House factions, working for an ignorant narcissist and erratic president with few core beliefs, lend themselves to a chain-of-command structure. It’s reported that Kelly has a good relationship with Stephen Bannon, the alt-right, immigrant-bashing Trump senior adviser. That won’t be reassuring to politicians like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was close to Priebus, a fellow Wisconsinite, and who is detested by Bannon.

    There’s no evidence to suggest that Trump is really interested in changing his ways or becoming more conventional. And though he has a new chief of staff, he hasn’t stopped tweeting in the same unhinged and undisciplined manner. Kelly was picked not because he’s a disciplinarian, but because he projects strength. As in the above article Eliot Cohen argues: “Kelly’s selection, and that of a foul-mouthed financier from New York as Trump’s communications director, tells us not that Trump is planning on moderating his behavior, but rather on going to the mattresses.” Many on the outside believe that Kelly was appointed to rein in the president and the White House, but Trump seems to want the opposite. Trump is spoiling for a fight and no one, not even General Kelly, will be able to stand in his way. When Cohen using the mafia phrase “going to the mattresses”, is he also implying Trump is getting ready for war with Congressional Republicans as rumored, just like the mafia rival clans and families?

    The last time a military commander was named chief of staff for a beleaguered president was Al Haig 44 years ago in the Nixon administration. It didn’t take long to see that the problem was the emperor, not the clothes. That’s just as true today. John Kelly is destined to fail as chief of staff.

    • Let us see if you are right about Kelly. The problem is not this distinguished retired General but Steve Bannon and Trump’s own SIL,Ivanka and the POTUS himself. I suppose you, LaMoy, and your compatriots are stuck with him unless Mueller found a smoking gun that could lead to impeachment or resignation ala Nixon.

  2. A real soldier, real field commander and general and military careerist. This man is a person with a plan, strategy and have the will to make it happen. The problem is Trump is a dilletante the same way Kelly has criticize Congress and lawmakers. Kelly is going to steer Trump to be more disciplined and decisive rather than reactionary and if Trump cannot cut it, then another one out the door.

  3. A military general, any general, is as good as the soldiers he command.

    Gen. Kelly will very quickly realize he actually has no soldiers to command in the White House. The other generals he’ll meet are the Attorney General, Surgeon General.

    I give him 24 days.

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