It will seem hard to believe now, but when John Kelly was nominated to be Secretary of Homeland Security two years ago, he was a widely praised, relatively uncontroversial selection for the job.
A retired four-star Marine general who had spent four years as the head of the US Southern Command, Kelly had served with distinction. He was also the most senior member of the US military to lose a child in Iraq and Afghanistan, when his son Robert stepped on a land mine in 2011 and was killed.
A “straight-talking, candid, courageous leader who will say exactly what he thinks” is how former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates introduced him at his Senate confirmation hearing.
“To put it quite simply, he is one of the finest people I have ever known,” Gates said. “I would trust him with my life.”
Only 11 Democrats voted against his confirmation.
And yet, when Kelly leaves the White House at the end of the month, he will do so as a man permanently diminished — his reputation in tatters.
While it’s hard to imagine any person succeeding as President Trump’s chief of staff and imposing discipline on a president who is incapable of being disciplined, Kelly’s failures went so much further.
When he became chief of staff, many pundits hailed him as the proverbial adult in the room who would curb Trump’s worst impulses. Instead, he fed them and exposed himself, over and over, as small-minded, dishonest, and sympathetic to Trump’s most egregiously racist and xenophobic policies.
At the Department of Homeland Security, he became the point man for Trump’s most egregiously racist and xenophobic policies — the so-called Muslim ban and the crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Though he served at DHS for only a short period of time, deportation arrests jumped by 40 percent under his watch.
In a public speech in April 2017, he eagerly portrayed immigrants as a significant threat to the nation’s security. He also dramatically hyped up the threat from terrorists and even childishly challenged Congress to either change immigration laws or “shut up.”
At the White House he became the driving force behind the scenes for a tougher, more punitive presidential stance on immigration. He helped torpedo a possible legislative deal with Democrats to protect DACA recipients, individuals whom he charmingly derided as “too lazy.”
He publicly called the administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents a “tough deterrent,” which though it was the true intention of the policy, contradicted the White House’s own talking points. Kelly’s hard-line stance was not merely being done to support his boss. They appeared to reflect his own racist views.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the public fight he initiated in the fall of 2017 with Frederica Wilson, a black congresswoman from Florida. Wilson had accused the president of acting disrespectfully during a condolence call with Myeshia Johnson, an African-American widow of a US soldier killed in Niger.
Like his boss, who frequently uses prominent persons of color and women as punching bags, Kelly labeled Wilson an “empty barrel.” He refused to apologize on behalf of the White House to Johnson, who had been left in tears by the president’s call, and accused her of politicizing the issue.
He even publicly stated the neo-Confederate view that Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state” and, echoing his boss’s oft-criticized post-Charlottesville comments, said there were “men and women of good faith on both sides” during the Civil War.
Perhaps his most egregious act was to defend publicly White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who he called “a man of true integrity and honor.” Porter had been credibly accused of violently abusing both of his former wives.
Inside the White House, Kelly developed a reputation for duplicity and deceitfulness. News reporting on the White House became replete with tales of Kelly calling the president an “idiot” and portraying himself as the only “bulwark against catastrophe” (leaks that one might imagine came from Kelly himself). Kelly even joked to reporters about firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while Tillerson sat on the commode battling a stomach bug — a needlessly crass humiliation.
Kelly, it seems, will be missed not by the president, his staff, congressional Republicans, and certainly not Democrats. It’s hard to imagine many people will be referring to him as one of “the finest people” any time soon.
In Kelly’s fall from grace we see the key phenomenon of those who choose to work for Trump — it never works out well.
H.R. McMaster was a well-respected Army general. Rex Tillerson was a titan of industry. Both went to work for Trump and their reputations have barely recovered. Mike Flynn had a reasonably distinguished career in the military. Now he’s a convicted felon. Jeff Sessions was a senator from Alabama before being mocked and derided by the president on Twitter and then unceremoniously booted from his job. Tom Price had a cushy gig as a congressman from a safe congressional seat. He spent less than nine months as secretary of Health and Human Services before being forced to step down for taking pricy charter flights as taxpayer expense. Ronny Jackson , who had a comfortable job as White House doctor, then was asked to be Veteran Affairs secretary and saw his reputation demolished. Anthony Scaramucci was White House communications director for a whopping six days. Now he’s a punch line.
In nearly all of these cases, these were bad people who were exposed as such after deciding to take a job with the president. In Kelly’s case, his badness was not visible to most. It lurked under the surface. Working for Trump gave it a chance to come out, fully flowered. It’s small wonder that Trump is now having such difficult finding someone to replace Kelly as chief of staff.
After all, if we’ve learned anything over the past two years, it’s that everything and everyone Trump touches is made worse for it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe.