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What the hell happened to John Kelly?

Though his joining the Trump administration may very well have been motivated by his sense of duty to country, John Kelly became caught up in and distracted by the daily chaos and melodrama that is the Trump White House, columnist Kevin Cullen writes.Tom Brenner/New York Times/file
What the hell happened to John Kelly?

Last year, I had no problem being the only Boston Globe columnist to fulsomely praise Kelly when he was appointed secretary for Homeland Security.

Now, after Kelly’s first year as part of the Trump administration, which leaves him currently still standing as the chief of staff to the president, my opinion has changed.

Kelly, who grew up in Oak Square in Brighton, the son of a postal worker, served this country honorably as a Marine, rising to the rank of four-star general and chief of the US Southern Command.

I can’t say I know the man, having met him only briefly twice. Much of my knowledge and admiration of Kelly was based on the testimonials of friends who knew Kelly well or served with and under him as Marines. His wit, his character, his toughness, his sense of duty, his ability to work under different administrations without regard to partisanship made him stand out as a military man of frank, down-to-earth and almost regal bearing.

But since he went to work for Donald Trump, Kelly has squandered so much of his honor, so much of his integrity, and so much of his identity that, frankly, I don’t recognize him anymore.


It pains me to say this. Because I deeply admired the man. I know people, Marines, especially, who can’t and won’t say a bad word about him. And, I think, that assessment of John Kelly, the man, the Marine, is mostly accurate.

I believe he was an honorable, decent military man who gave all for his country, including giving this nation his son, Marine First Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.

But the reason I am taking pen to paper, or, to be more precise, fingers to keyboard, is because once he left the military and became a political figure and hitched his trailer to an incurious fool named Donald Trump, John Kelly lost the plot and has, with every passing day and week and month, forfeited whatever goodwill he earned as a consummate military leader.


Though his joining the administration may very well have been motivated by his sense of duty to country, Kelly became caught up in and distracted by the daily chaos and melodrama that is the Trump White House, the most dysfunctional Oval Office in living memory. He became — at some human level not surprisingly — in debt to his political patron, the president of the United States.

As such, Kelly suspended his natural Marine BS-meter, doing the opposite of what the military taught him, which is that you are, in fact, allowed to ignore orders when they are neither moral nor lawful.

Before he knew what hit him, Kelly faced a difficult choice: serve his president and his country, or denounce the incompetent, crazy person to whom he pledged fealty.

Still, it is too easy and totally disingenuous to blame Kelly’s fall from grace solely on Donald Trump. Kelly has to own most of it.

This isn’t about the Constitution, which he swore an oath to uphold as a Marine. It’s about serving Donald Trump, which is a political choice for Kelly. And, unlike the Constitution, a generous, optimistic blueprint for an egalitarian, fair-minded republic, Trump is a mean-spirited ingrate, someone who degrades the integrity of the office of the presidency with every tweet, with every embrace of racists and racist thought, with every slight and insult of allies, with every defense of men who abuse women, with every rally in which he has an addict-like need for admiration and adulation.


And it bears repeating that Trump went out of his way to avoid military service. I don’t understand why, coupled with his attacks on war heroes and Gold Star families, any military person would have a shred of respect for the man.

This is merely a newspaper column, and as a result I have not nearly enough space to enumerate how great John Kelly was and how far he has sunk.

Let’s just stick with the sunk part for now.

As the secretary of Homeland Security, he sicced ICE agents on noncriminals, breaking up families, like that of Francisco Rodriguez, an MIT janitor from Chelsea who fled El Salvador in 2006 after a co-worker was murdered by a gang and he feared he’d be next. Rodriguez’s stay of deportation was renewed without issue for years, and then, under Trump’s ethos and under John Kelly’s orders, ICE began rounding up ordinary people like Francisco Rodriguez rather than use its limited resources on targeting criminals. By locking Rodriguez up, Kelly was essentially forcing American taxpayers to take care of Rodriguez’s three children, all American citizens. Beyond being mean-spirited, beyond being morally reprehensible in needlessly breaking up a family, how on earth does that make America great again?


Kelly was overheard on a hot mike at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Conn., last year making an offhand joke to Trump suggesting he use a sword from the ceremony on the press, in what his defenders, I guess, would say was a light-hearted jab about metaphorical saber rattling. But Trump’s obsession with degrading and dismissing a free press, and openly fantasizing about shutting down media outlets he doesn’t like, puts him in the category of tinpot dictators. Cheering Trump on in this regard, rather than privately suggesting he ease up on the press-bashing, made Kelly look petty and small, trying to curry favor with his pathologically insecure boss.

Kelly may have sadly earned a right to talk about Gold Star families. But why on earth he went to Trump’s defense after Trump offended the widow of Army Sergeant LaDavid Johnson is beyond me. He took his greatest issue with Frederica Wilson, the congresswoman who was with and spoke on behalf of the widow when the president called, and first disclosed the content of the conversation between Trump and the widow.

Wilson’s discretion, or lack thereof, was not the issue. The widow’s feelings were, frankly, all that mattered. And the widow backed Wilson’s version of events and her right to disclose them. But that didn’t stop Kelly from attacking Wilson, referring to her as an empty barrel, which some people took as racist. I can’t judge the word or the intent, but I can judge Kelly’s conduct, and it was unbecoming an officer or a gentleman.


On top of it, Kelly publicly accused Wilson of claiming credit for securing funding for an FBI building in her Florida constituency, when there was video evidence that conclusively proved she did no such thing. He never admitted his mistake, nor apologized.

Does that sound like anyone you know?

Frankly, the only thing that surprised me when John Kelly joined this administration was that he was willing to overlook Trump’s obscene insulting of Senator John McCain and the parents of US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in combat while trying to save his fellow soldiers.

Last week, Kelly sounded like any number of vaguely racist callers to any number of radio talk shows, dismissing immigrants as lazy. Kelly is the chief of staff, not Rush Limbaugh. It was unseemly, undignified, to talk about anybody in that fashion.

But just when you think his week couldn’t get worse, it did. After initially defending and praising Rob Porter, the president’s wife-beating staff secretary, Kelly was forced to throw Porter under the bus when it became obvious that the White House could not deny the obvious, which was that Porter was a vile, repeat wife batterer. And that Kelly and others had apparently known about it for months.

So, what explains those conflicting reactions? Did Kelly not believe the women? What did he think when he saw the photo of one of the women, showing a black eye she says Porter inflicted? Does he think that Porter’s ex-wives are engaged in some sort of partisan conspiracy to embarrass the Trump administration? And, lastly, did he warn Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, that the guy she had started dating had a history of beating his female partners?

The moral compass that guided John Kelly’s life as a military man has given way to the situational expediency of a political man. His decency has given way to immodesty, his humor to cruelty, his good manners to discourtesy.

We all grow up terrified of becoming our parents. What has happened to John Kelly is far worse. He has become his boss.

I’m guessing the best thing we can say is that John Kelly was co-opted, his brain hijacked by the uncouth vulgarian who at the moment inhabits the White House.

And yet, that sounds so implausible. John Kelly is no one’s fool.

Which raises a worse scenario, and that is that John Kelly always thought like this. That the Marine Corps, with its ethos of merit-based, color-blind, identity-blind judgments, tempered his thoughts, leading him to shun racist, separatist, and authoritarian ideologies. And now that he is free do to so, in a workplace overseen by someone where such thought is not only encouraged but rewarded, he is showing his true colors.

I’m still not ready to go there, to presume that John Kelly is that bad of a man. But I think he has said and done things that would allow many others to reasonably assume he is that bad of a man.

And I find that tragic, for him, and for the country.

I still believe John Kelly is a man of honor. It has been reported that he raised the prospect of resigning, as he has previously, after the Porter debacle. Apparently, the president will not countenance that prospect.

So Kelly remains standing, loyally, at the president’s side. There’s that duty thing, of course, imbued in Kelly’s DNA, which whispers in his ear that if someone above you in the chain of command tells you what to do, you should do it.

But honor should always outrank duty. John Kelly should resign. Listening to Trump got him in this mess. Not listening to Trump might be his first step in rehabilitating a mess that is very much of his own making.

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