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John Kelly deserves contempt, not praise

John Kelly as White House chief of staff in 2018. Now that he's collecting speaking fees, Kelly is speaking out about Trump.Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post

When it mattered most, John Kelly chose silence.

Now that he’s getting fat speaking fees, Kelly is spilling tea about the moral and legal depravities of an administration he first served as Homeland Security secretary, then as chief of staff. During a Wednesday speech at Drew University in New Jersey, Kelly criticized President Trump’s fanciful dealings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un and his other foreign policy misadventures. He also defended former National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s decision to report Trump’s quid pro quo phone call last July with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“John Kelly Finally Lets Loose on Trump,” crowed a headline in The Atlantic, which reported on Kelly’s speech. Of course, this led some to cheer Kelly’s sudden forthrightness, however egregiously late it is.


If democracy is on the precipice — and it is — Kelly helped push it there. A 75-minute speech does not absolve Kelly from being an accomplice to the most corrupt presidency in American history, one he served for two years until his departure in January 2019. He is likely less guided by a newfound conscience than his ability to fill seats with those willing to pay to hear him speak.

Needless to say, Kelly’s former boss is irked. In a tweet, Trump said, "When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn’t do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head.” Kelly, he said, "came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many X’s, he misses the action & just can’t keep his mouth shut, which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do.”

Trump likely meant “exes,” strangely equating Kelly with a scorned former lover.

When it’s to Kelly’s advantage, of course, he has no problem keeping quiet. In his speech, he called migrants “overwhelmingly good people,” but never mentioned that, months into Trump’s presidency, Kelly proposed family separations as a deterrent to illegal immigration. He didn’t talk about his defense of Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary, accused of domestic violence by two former wives. Even after photos of the abuse went public, Kelly said Porter was “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.” Porter eventually resigned.


When Trump spoke brusquely to a military widow whose husband was among four soldiers killed during an ambush in Niger in 2017, Kelly insulted Representative Frederica Wilson, who heard and criticized the call. He said she lied, even though her characterization was correct. In true Trumpian fashion, he never apologized — nor did he explain his actions during his speech.

Now I understand why Senator Mitt Romney was commended in a manner disproportionate to what he actually did during Trump’s impeachment trial. With no other Republicans willing to convict Trump, the former Massachusetts governor voted “yes” on the first article of impeachment. Within minutes #MittRomneyIsMyHero began trending on Twitter. Other than nasty comments by Trump and his toadies, Romney’s vote came at no personal risk. By the second article of impeachment, Romney fell back into GOP lockstep.

Yet for a brief moment, Romney did the right thing at the right time. Kelly is a glaring reminder as to just how rare, especially in this terrible political moment, that is for a Republican. When he became chief of staff, Kelly was hailed as “the adult in the room” who could tame Trump’s worst tendencies. Instead he boosted the ego and cruelties of a feral septuagenarian toddler, who has only grown more impulsive and uncontrollable.


During his speech, Kelly said Vindman, a key impeachment hearing witness who was fired this week during Trump’s post-trial vengeance lap, "did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave.” He was compelled to report the president’s disturbing actions on that Ukraine phone call.

“We teach them 'Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss,’” Kelly said.

Vindman did what he was supposed to do. In the Trump White House, Kelly did not. He chose craven over courageous, his tongue loosening only when he could taste a payday. And for that, he deserves not praise, but contempt.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.