Gen. John Kelly learned how to deal with civilians, but nothing like Trump

Retired General John Kelly (left), now President Trump’s chief of staff, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (center) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Retired General John Kelly (left), now President Trump’s chief of staff, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (center) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

WASHINGTON — They learn how to shoot. How to make beds with crisp corners. How to maintain discipline within the ranks. And by the time they become generals, America’s most elite military leaders also are taught the delicate art of dealing with top civilian officials.

In short: They go to president school.

Studying the workings of government, the ways of civilian leaders, and the crucial role of diplomacy — both within Washington and around the world — is a necessary step for top-level brass like John Kelly, the former four-star Marine general whom President Trump chose this week to impose order on a chaotic White House.


But while he has been trained in how to work with people outside military culture and his line of command, Kelly will face enormous challenges wrangling Trump, one of the most unpredictable commanders in chief in US history.

“I told John he’s going to need a big bottle of Scotch to deal with that chief of staff job,” said former secretary of defense Leon Panetta, who was Kelly’s immediate boss at the Pentagon from 2011 to 2012 and also served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

“This is a guy who believes in discipline, a strong chain of command, a process for developing policy, and does not tolerate chaos,” Panetta said to the Globe. “So in some ways he’s been dropped into a combat zone.”

Kelly represents one of the paradoxes of Trump’s administration. A president with a highly disordered approach to governing and management has an open affection for powerful current and former military leaders and has placed them in key positions throughout his administration.

The two other two most prominent of them are Defense Secretary James Mattis, also a former Marine general; and Army General H.R. McMaster, who heads the National Security Council.


That means Trump — who has shown little interest in history and who delights in challenging Washington ways, leadership norms, and longstanding alliances — is putting deep trust in a cadre of aides who’ve been taught to be dispassionate about policy, collaborate with other countries, and who hold a deep respect for US governmental institutions and historic tradition.

There’s a some precedent for having a general or two in the presidential inner circle: David Petraeus, a former Army general, was President Barack Obama’s CIA director. Colin Powell, a general in the 1990 Gulf War, was secretary of state under President George W. Bush. And of course there’s Alexander Haig, another Army general who became chief of staff for President Richard Nixon and was secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.

In Trump’s case, the presence of high-ranking military officials in the administration has been a comfort to some of the president’s more reluctant allies in Congress, including Republican Arizona Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But many wonder how the melding of Trump and the generals will play out long term.

Kelly, a Brighton native, and Mattis both attended the National War College in Washington, an elite graduate school for rising officers who the military is grooming for top command. Both are active alums who frequently return to give talks.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis.CHRISTIAN BRUNA/European PressPhoto Agency

“The curriculum was designed to have every student taken out of their comfort zone. To confront inherent biases. To recognize that there are experiences and world views that are very different from their own,” said Kelly John Ward, a retired colonel and the associate dean of academics at the National War College. “That is the world we live in today . . . you need the assistance of your allies.”


War College students, and elite officers throughout their careers, study the workings of the National Security Council and how different presidents have used it. They role play being members of an embassy staff, to better understand how diplomacy works. They watch the Supreme Court hearing arguments, talk to members of Congress and their staff, and visit the United Nations.

“The military spends a lot of time understanding what we call civilian-military relations. This is something our country is founded on. We subordinate the military to civilian control,” said David Maxwell, a retired colonel who teaches at Georgetown University.

“It is a system of education and experiences that provides the foundation for good judgment. In a time of war, or in the face of congressional questioning, you might have less than perfect information, but you have to make a sound judgment at that time,” Maxwell said.

But all that training may not prepare a general for the unique challenges posed by Trump.

There’s a significant difference between learning to protect and respect US institutions and knowing how to, say, mobilize moderate Republicans to support the agenda of an increasingly unpopular president. General school, and serving at the summit of military command, doesn’t necessarily prepare a leader for the realities of legislative tactics and political combat.


“What does General Kelly know about governance? Next to nothing,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and former Army officer.

“Does he understand the art and science of crafting legislation and building consensus? And getting buy-in from the press? And interest groups? I’d be amazed if he did. His experience hasn’t led him to do that.”

Also good judgment — from a general’s perspective — doesn’t always synch with Trump’s favored mode of decision-making, or his decisions.

Elements within Trump’s political base have focused their ire on McMaster, whom they view as disloyal to Trump.

There’s a website, promoted by Trump supporters, called “McMaster leaks” that urges viewers to “post your leaks about H.R. McMaster.” Instances where McMaster has criticized Trump are highlighted, including a link to an article where McMaster was said to disagree with Trump’s decision to allow top Russian officials into the Oval Office.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Other “leaks” posted on the website include a story about McMaster hiring aides close to some of Obama’s national security officials and a screed against the general for firing a staffer who’d argued that elements of the so-called deep state, a reference to the intelligence community, were trying to take down the Trump presidency.

The website also featured a cartoon with anti-Semitic overtones depicting McMaster, along with Petraeus (who is retired and does not work for the Trump administration), as a puppet of wealthy Jewish interests.


But coming in for public scorn may be less of a problem for a career military officer than adjusting to the freewheeling environment of civilian debate.

Kelly, whom Trump first installed as Homeland Security secretary, has shown an ability to work well with civilian leaders in Trump’s Cabinet, forging strong relationships with the other department heads, according to one top Trump official. This is a hallmark of his career, according to those who’ve watched him closely or worked with him.

“If he thought somebody made the wrong call, he would come into my office and tell me so,” said Panetta, the former defense secretary, who formed a bond with Kelly while traveling the world with the general.

Kelly’s ability to charm civilians goes well beyond the US borders. Francis J. “Bing” West, a former Defense Department official and author who traveled with Kelly during one of his two stints in Iraq, recalled that Kelly was able to forge a strong relationship with Muslim leaders in Anbar province.

 White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.
White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.Win McNamee/Getty Images/Getty Images

This was in 2009, West said, a period when the US military was reducing its footprint in the region. West said he sat in a meeting with top sheiks as they learned that the United States would leave just one general in the area.

“The question was, ‘Who?’ ” recalled West.

The sheiks offered a clear preference: “The answer was John Kelly. And I burst out laughing.”

He had to explain his shock to gathered leaders.

“You’re selecting a Catholic from Boston to be with the direct descendents going all the way back to Muhammad. And that’s the person you want to be staying out in Anbar?”

Still, the skills that work well in war time are quite different from those that go into governing a large and messy democracy.

“I’m not sure that the ability to charm Iraqi warlords transfers to working in D.C.,” said Bacevich.

So far, however, it seems to be working — for Kelly and, time will tell, maybe for Trump.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.