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The re-education of John Kelly

John Kelly, the Marine Corps general, has emerged as candid, credible critic of his former boss

John Kelly, in his former role as White House chief of staff, listened to President Trump.
John Kelly, in his former role as White House chief of staff, listened to President Trump.Evan Vucci/Associated Press/file 2018

Wherever John Kelly has been all these many months, he’s back.

A son of Brighton, Kelly labored as chief of staff for a president who doesn’t listen to any counsel but his own. He tried in vain to get Donald Trump to tone down the vitriol and turn off his Twitter feed. Trump, who views even constructive criticism the way Henry VIII did, did not take it well.

Robert Wilton, a British diplomat and author, described Henry VIII as a “a gross man-child, willfully and capriciously dangerous to everything around him, including the country," someone who “ruled with little more policy than petulant self-gratification.”

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Hmmm. Sounds familiar.

Since leaving the administration just over a year ago, Kelly has tried to distance himself from it. A man of dignity, he has kept a dignified silence. But that’s over.

Good for him.

Two years ago, I wrote a column “What the hell happened to John Kelly?” It was a lament for a man whom I admired and had known vicariously through those who knew him well. We all considered him the consummate Marine, someone who not only served bravely in combat but lost a son to it.

Reaction to that column ran the gamut. Some thought it was an unfair hit job. Others thought Trump was merely tapping into Kelly’s real and none-too-admirable political beliefs. But there were also e-mails and texts from people who know and deeply respect Kelly who expressed bewilderment that he had become the administration’s frontman for some of its most controversial, divisive policies.

Kelly’s staunchest allies insisted he had done nothing wrong. Other admirers, however, increasingly worried his association with Trump was tarnishing him.

Kelly, by nature a take-charge guy, is now taking charge of his own legacy.

He raised his profile during the impeachment process, vouching for the integrity of former national security adviser John Bolton, an eyewitness to the disputed Ukraine narrative whose testimony Senate Republicans had no interest in hearing.

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But it was Trump’s summary dismissal of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide, while making Vindman do a perp walk like a traitor, that led Kelly to make his most cutting remarks about his former boss.

According to The Atlantic, Kelly spent 75 minutes at Drew University in New Jersey Wednesday night, speaking candidly about his qualms about the way Trump spoke of and implemented policies on immigration, Ukraine, North Korea, military discipline, and even the news media, saying he disagreed with the wisdom and efficacy of policies he was at one point in a position of defending.

Trump fired back with all his characteristic restraint.

“When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn’t do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head,” Trump tweeted. “Being Chief of Staff just wasn’t for him. He 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.”

That’s baloney. Kelly isn’t giving away the nuclear codes. He is merely stating the blindingly obvious: Trump is an insecure, vindictive man who retaliated against a career Army officer who literally bled for his country and did what the Constitution, his military training, and a subpoena demanded of him.

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Trump’s thinly veiled threat, suggesting Kelly was violating the law because he had the temerity to observe the emperor he once served has no clothes, is like so much else the president says, devoid of facts and avoiding the facts. The tweet contained insults and empty threats, which kind of sums up his presidency.

Kelly said his wife convinced him to join the administration, hoping he could do some good.

Some will see Kelly’s new-found candor about the president’s faults as expedient and self-serving.

I see him restoring his reputation to where it belongs, viewing him as Paul Henreid does a formerly cynical Humphrey Bogart at the end of “Casablanca,” when he shakes Bogey’s hand and says, “Welcome back to the fight.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.